The Chinese government is moving to ban the use of VPNs for individual Chinese citizens by 2018, in an effort to exert “internet sovereignty” according to President Xi Jinping.

VPN’s, or virtual private networks, have been used as a workaround for internet users in China to access internet content beyond the government censors. The censorship tool, nicknamed “the Great Firewall” has for years forbidden access to some of the world’s largest internet sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Google.

But open access to the internet is critical to what was, until 2015, the world’s fastest growing economy. As such, businesses in China have used VPNs to reach their international partners. Academic institutions have also needed them to remain connected to their peers in other countries. Perhaps not surprisingly, individuals have co-opted VPNs to gain access to an internet free of censorship.

Freedom of speech, press, and information remains taboo in China. In 2010, after facing pressure from the Chinese government to censor its services, Google left the country. Internet censorship remains the norm, with the government restricting access to any information critical of the regime or its history. Since the internet arrived in China, the government has played a careful balancing act, hoping to use it to enable its burgeoning economy, but still prohibit a free exchange of information that could be threatening to the regime.

Restrictions on the use of the internet are vague and all-encompassing, including such violations as “inciting division of the country, harming national unification,” and “making falsehoods or distorting the truth, spreading rumors, destroying the order of society.”

Even within the state-run internet that the Chinese government does allow for, there are reportedly millions of state employees who serve as “public opinion analysts” who monitor internet trends and report on them to the government. This sort of internet policing has created a culture in China that encourages the use of VPNs to avoid government intrusions into what may be completely innocuous internet usage.

The timing of this new ban, set to go into effect in February 2018, is thought to coincide with internal party politics in the Chinese Communist Party. It is speculated that Xi Jinping fears the potential for outsiders supporting his political rivals using the internet to support opposition.

Image courtesy of shizhao – Wikipedia