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China closing Web loophole

Virtual private networks, used to penetrate the Great Firewall, are being blocked, reflecting concerns before Xi Jinping takes office as president.

December 27, 2012|By David Pierson, Los Angeles Times
  • China's Internet censors appear to be cracking down on VPNs, frustrating tech-savvy Chinese and foreign businesspeople. Above, an Internet cafe in Beijing in 2010.
China's Internet censors appear to be cracking down on VPNs, frustrating… (Ng Han Guan Associated Press )

BEIJING — For years, China's net censors turned a blind eye to a major loophole.

Anyone who wanted access to blocked overseas websites like Twitter, Facebook, and more recently, the New York Times, only needed to download foreign software called a virtual private network (VPN) to circumvent the Great Firewall.

But in recent weeks, even these tools have begun to falter, frustrating tech-savvy Chinese and foreign businesspeople who now struggle to access Internet sites as innocuous as gmail.com and imdb.com.

The tightening appears to be part of a broader and continuing campaign by China to rein in the country's Internet, which has nearly 600 million users and challenges the government's monopoly on information.

State media have been running editorials regularly about the dangers of an unregulated Internet, citing an uptick in rumormongering and misinformation.

"By typing on the computer, one can send the meanest curse, the most shocking scandals, the most insensitive ridicule and it seems no one can do anything to you," the Beijing Morning Post said in an editorial Thursday. "Any responsible government shouldn't let this become a method for the mass public to seek justice."

On Monday, one of China's top governing bodies, the National People's Congress Standing Committee, proposed requiring Internet users to register their real identities before accessing online services as a way to combat online fraud. If passed, the law would be especially damaging to China's micro-blogging platforms such as Sina Weibo.

The Twitter-like services double as a national nerve center for public opinion. Because bloggers have been able to shield their identities, the platform has also engendered online vigilantism by exposing government malfeasance — such as hiding ill-gotten wealth in dozens of apartments, sex with a teenager or keeping two remarkably similar-looking sisters as mistresses.

Michael Anti, a Beijing-based critic of Web censorship, believes the current pushback on the Web reflects paranoia over incoming President Xi Jinping's crackdown on official corruption. Local officials could be pressuring propaganda departments to curb freedom of speech online, he said.

"Officials hate the Internet," Anti said. "They're afraid of being victims of the anti-corruption campaign."

Furthermore, Anti said, China's myriad ministries policing the Web are probably engaging in a turf war before Xi takes office in March.

Jurisdiction over services like VPNs could result in revenues through registration fees. Fan Binxing, creator of the Great Firewall, told the state-owned Global Times earlier this month that VPN businesses were illegal in China unless they were registered with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.

Many of the top commercial VPN services have reported trouble working as usual in China. Users say access is often denied or crashes after short use. When working correctly, VPN software encrypts users' Web activity and scales the Great Firewall by logging onto a server overseas.

Experts suspect Chinese censors have determined a way to identify encrypted Web use and block corresponding proxy servers.

Foreign businesses such as banks rely on VPNs to exchange confidential information. Expatriates generally regard the software as a necessity to keep up with the outside world.

For the ruling Communist Party, the foreign Internet has never been more dangerous. Overseas Chinese websites have been breathlessly reporting party intrigue, and news organizations have been detailing the most sensitive details about families of the ruling elite.

Bloomberg's website has been blocked in China since June 29, the day it published an investigation on the family wealth of Xi. The news service released another sensitive investigation Thursday that explored the wealth and influence of China's biggest political families.

david.pierson@latimes.com

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