Like clockwork, governments eager to censor the internet inevitably shift their gaze toward tools like VPNs used to get around restrictions. We've documented rising efforts to ban the tools use in countries like Russia, where VPN providers are being forced out of business for refusing to aid internet censorship. Whether it's to protect VoIP revenue for state-run telecom monopolies, or to prevent users from tap-dancing around state-mandated filters or other restrictions, VPNs have become the bogeyman du jour for oppressive governments looking to crack down on pesky free speech and open communication.
China's great firewall is a sterling example of draconian censorship, and since 2012 or so China has been trying to curtail both encryption and VPN use. Earlier this year China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology declared that all VPN providers now needed prior government approval to operate, a move generally seen as the opening salvo of an outright ban. These new restrictions will last until July 2021, impose fines up to $2000 on companies offering unsanctioned VPNs (read: all of them), and feature government warnings sent to users consistently caught using the tools.
But in some areas, the pretense has washed away and VPN usage has been simply banned entirely. And as of July, VPN services began disappearing from both the Android and iOS app stores, with popular VPN providers like Green informing their customers the government has forced them to shut down completely:
"Dear respected Green customers,
We have received notice from the higher authorities. We regret to inform you that Green will cease our service on July 1st, 2017. We apologize for any inconvenience caused.
We will start processing our users’ refund request after service stopped (the amount will be calculated based on the remaining days in your plan). If you need a refund, please make sure to submit your refund request by August 31, 2017. We won’t be able to process any refund request submitted after that date. Since the workload of processing the requests, information verification and money transfer would be huge, we won’t be able to set an exact date for the refund. We plan to process the refund soon after August 31, please wait patiently.
Originally, statements made by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology seemed to suggest the country's VPN ban wouldn't be fully implemented until March 2018. But these recent reports indicate that the Chinese government has grown tired of the pretense and has expedited its VPN crackdown dramatically. Since around 1-3% of China's 731 million internet users use tools like VPNs to tap dance around internet filters, even with this crackdown this will be a long, difficult, expensive game of Whack-a-Mole for the Chinese government all the same.
While VPNs are not a panacea for our endlessly eroded privacy rights, they remain an incredibly useful tool for those living under repressive regimes. Most legislative VPN bans are of the "death by a thousand cuts" variety, where lawmakers go out of their way to pretend they're not trying to kill VPNs, even if the end goal always remains the same: the elimination of any tool that might let citizens peek through the curtain of draconian efforts at information control.