China further tightens control over Internet

By: | Published: January 31, 2015 12:05 AM

Jing Yuechen, the founder of an Internet start-up here in the Chinese capital, has no interest in overthrowing the Communist Party...

Jing Yuechen, the founder of an Internet start-up here in the Chinese capital, has no interest in overthrowing the Communist Party. But these days she finds herself cursing the nation’s smothering cyberpolice as she tries — and fails — to browse photo-sharing websites like Flickr and struggles to stay in touch with the Facebook friends she has made during trips to France, India and Singapore.

Gmail has become almost impossible to use here, and in recent weeks the authorities have gummed up Astrill, the software Ms. Jing and countless others depended on to circumvent the Internet restrictions that Western security analysts refer to as the Great Firewall.

Lu Wei has ratcheted up China’s sophisticated system of online censorship.

By interfering with Astrill and several other popular virtual private networks, or V.P.N.s, the government has complicated the lives of Chinese astronomers seeking the latest scientific data from abroad, graphic designers shopping for clip art on Shutterstock and students submitting online applications to American universities.

“If it was legal to protest and throw rotten eggs on the street, I’d definitely be up for that,”Jing, 25, said.

China has long had some of the world’s most onerous Internet restrictions. But until now, the authorities had effectively tolerated the proliferation of V.P.N.s as a lifeline for millions of people, from archaeologists to foreign investors, who rely heavily on less-fettered access to the Internet.

But earlier this week, after a number of V.P.N. companies, including StrongVPN and Golden Frog, complained that the Chinese government had disrupted their services with unprecedented sophistication, a senior official for the first time acknowledged its hand in the attacks and implicitly promised more of the same.

The move to disable some of the most widely used V.P.N.s has provoked a torrent of outrage among video artists, entrepreneurs and professors who complain that in its quest for so-called cybersovereignty — Beijing’s euphemism for online filtering — the Communist Party is stifling the innovation and productivity needed to revive the Chinese economy at a time of slowing growth.

“I need to stay tuned into the rest of the world,” said Henry Yang, 25, the international news editor of a state-owned media company who uses Facebook to follow American broadcasters. “I feel like we’re like frogs being slowly boiled in a pot.”

Multinational companies are also alarmed by the growing online constraints. Especially worrisome, they say, are new regulations that would force foreign technology and telecom companies to give the government “back doors” to their hardware and software and require them to store data within China.

Like their Chinese counterparts, Western business owners have been complaining about their inability to gain access to many Google services since the summer. A few weeks ago, China cut off the ability to receive Gmail on smartphones through third-party email services like Apple Mail or Microsoft Outlook.

The recent disabling of several widely used V.P.N.s has made it difficult for company employees to use collaborative programs like Google Docs, although some people have found workarounds — for the time being.

“One unfortunate result of excessive control over email and Internet traffic is the slowing down of legitimate commerce, and that is not something in China’s best interest,” said James Zimmerman, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China. “In order to attract and promote world-class commercial enterprises, the government needs to encourage the use of the Internet as a crucial medium for the sharing of information and ideas to promote economic growth and development.”

Chinese authorities have long had the ability to interfere with V.P.N.s, but their interest in disrupting such programs has mounted alongside the government’s drive for cybersovereignty, especially since President Xi Jinping came to power two years ago. Lu Wei, the propaganda official Mr. Xi appointed as Internet czar, has been unapologetic in promoting the notion that China has the right to block a wide array of online content. A co-founder of Greatfire.org, which tracks online censorship in China, suggested the government had decided that soaring V.P.N. use among ordinary Chinese warranted a more aggressive attack on such software.

“This is just a further, logical step,” said the co-founder, who requested anonymity to avoid government scrutiny. “The authorities are hellbent on establishing ybersovereignty in China. If you look at what has taken place since last summer it is quite astounding.” Government officials have denied any role in blocking Google and they have dismissed accusations that Chinese authorities were behind a “man-in-the-middle” attack on Outlook two weeks ago as well as other hacking incidents involving Yahoo and Apple. But such claims have by and large fallen on deaf ears, especially given Beijing’s strident campaign against the “hostile foreign forces” it says are seeking to undermine the country through the Internet. On Tuesday, however, a senior official at the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology acknowledged that the government was targeting V.P.N.s to foster the “healthy development” of the nation’s Internet and he announced that such software was essentially illegal in China.

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