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VPN providers play 'cat-and-mouse' with China's growing censorship

Michael Kan | Feb. 2, 2015
But the big is question is how far China will go to stop the VPN providers. The government could do more to stifle the services, but any Internet clampdown would draw complaints from businesses about disruption of their activities, industry experts said.

Amit Bareket calls it a "cat-and-mouse" game. In this instance, his company is the mouse, and the Chinese government is a giant cat.

The two sides are continually at odds, because Bareket's company, SaferVPN, is one of many that provide software tools designed to circumvent the country's notorious Internet censorship.

These tools are growing more popular in China, in spite of recent government attempts to block them, according to Bareket.

"I can tell you that more than 300 new VPN users come to our service every day in China," said Bareket, who is the spokesman at SaferVPN.

VPNs, which stand for Virtual Private Networks, are essentially tools that can let users bypass Internet censorship. For about US$6 to $10 a month, subscribers to these services in China can access blocked sites such as Facebook, YouTube and more.

But lately, China has been more aggressive in trying to disrupt these services. Last week, several VPN providers reported access problems for users. Days later, one of the country's top regulators defended the actions and signaled that the authorities were prepared to crack down further.

"As the Internet develops, and new circumstances arise, we will take new regulatory measures to keep up," said Wen Ku, a director with China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.

That said, the recent disruptions haven't stopped the VPN services, only added a minor roadblock. Companies like SaferVPN still manage to bring their services to the country, and are working on new technologies to stay a step ahead of the censors.

Although VPN providers serve countries across the world, China is one of the big markets, Bareket said. SaferVPN is a smaller player, and has only several thousands of users from the country. Bareket estimated that the bigger VPN providers may have over 100,000 users in China, if not more.

In SaferVPN's case, it's not just foreigners living in China and businesses that use its service, but also local residents. VPNs became more widespread among Chinese users last year, driven mainly by regular users wanting access to site likes Facebook, Bareket said.

That may be the reason why the government, which was previously somewhat tolerant of the technology, is growing more alarmed about VPN usage.

VPNs risk upending the vast censorship China has so heavily invested in. Bareket noted that Chinese authorities were taking more measures to block VPN service, after pro-democracy protests broke out in Hong Kong last September.

China was already censoring coverage of the event, and was quick to cut access to Instagram, after photos of the demonstrations began to appear online. Still, a VPN service would be able to bypass the block.

 

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