VPNs are indispensable tools for today’s Internet users, and nowhere more so than in China. The famous “Great Firewall of China” – the name given to the set of technologies used to enforce censorship of foreign sites – can be circumvented by VPNs, but not in a consistent way. Sometimes VPNs are blocked, sometimes they work fine. Two recent posts on this blog reflect a broader uncertainty. According to the first story, the Chinese government had ordered ISPs to block personal VPN use by February 1st next year. According to the second, published a few days later, there were no such plans.
Just this week, another piece of the Chinese VPN jigsaw puzzle has been placed on the table by the authorities, as reported by Associated Press. It concerns the use of VPNs by foreign companies with subsidiaries in China:
“the biggest Chinese internet service provider says virtual private networks, which create encrypted links between computers and can be used to see sites blocked by Beijing’s web filters, will be permitted only to connect to a company’s headquarters abroad. The letter from state-owned China Telecom Ltd. says VPN users are barred from linking to other sites outside China, a change that might block access to news, social media or business services that are obscured by its “Great Firewall”.”
One possible explanation for all those conflicting signals is that the Chinese authorities actually want its citizens and companies to be unsure whether VPNs will be allowed or not. This unpredictability is a feature, not a bug, as pointed out in an analysis on the Tech in Asia blog of China’s Web censorship last year. Contradictory statements and actions mean that Internet users are not entirely sure where exactly the Chinese government draws the line for comments that will be