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The Great Firewall takes on VPNs

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China’s Security Council seems bent on expanding internet restrictions nationwide. Following new legislation in June this year, the crackdown has been swift: even major firms such as Apple and Whatsapp are on the chopping block. The recent ban on VPNs has huge implications for multinationals and the foreign employees that they hire.

For years, the use of virtual private networks (VPNs) to get beyond China’s “Great Firewall”, the government system that censors online users’ access to blocked foreign content, has been the country’s worst kept secret. By 1 February 2018, these cracks will have been closed – or at least be much, much harder to find. Last month, Chinese regulators ordered telecommunications providers to block access to VPNs by early 2018, representing the latest move against internet freedoms amid the Communist Party’s ever-tightening grip on online activities.

Compliance has been swift. Apple has already removed applications for VPNs from its Chinese app store, despite widespread outrage from global human rights advocates. Having already tightened rules for VPNs in 2015, Apple chief Tim Cook defended the company’s decision to remove the apps. “We would obviously rather not remove the apps, but we follow the law wherever we do business”, he said, during an earnings call for Apple’s quarterly financial report. Amazon has also been the subject of derision, after the firm’s Chinese partner, Beijing Sinnet Technology, contacted clients to advise them to delete the anti-censorship tools. China Telecom, China’s biggest internet service provider, has advised corporate clients that future VPN use will only be permitted for the use of contacting a firm’s headquarters abroad.

President Xi Jinping has overseen a significant expansion of China’s cyberspace regulation, introducing strict new data surveillance and censorship laws. It is only through the use of VPNs that businesses and their employees are able to access foreign search engines, Gmail accounts, and a host of otherwise blocked social media outlets- including Facebook, Twitter and Youtube. Regulators also routinely block…

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