The Chinese government has ordered the country's big-three telecoms and internet service providers, China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom, to completely block access to virtual private networks (VPNs) by February 2018 in the latest stage of its campaign to prevent web users from circumventing the 'great firewall of China'.
The order has been made because millions of Chinese citizens routinely use VPNs circumvent the blocks on 'banned' websites. These blocks restrict access to Google, Facebook, Twitter and other non-Chinese social media websites, as well as any news or opinion that might be critical of the Chinese government and Chinese Communist Party.
The move comes after the Chinese government ordered a 14-month crackdown on the internet, intended to support the country's "internet sovereignty", but which coincides with the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, a Party conference that only happens once every five years and which sees power reshuffled among the politicians and functionaries who govern China.
These meetings are typically accompanied by a crackdown on so-called dissidents and a ratcheting up of security.
A crackdown on VPNs was signalled in January, when the government ordered app stores - many of which offer VPN apps - to register with the Chinese government on the grounds of security.
"This is a significantly escalated form of internet control and shows there is unprecedented urgency and desperation at the top of the government," Xiao Qiang, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, told The Guardian.
He continued: "This is clearly about the highest levels of political struggle and the different factions using the internet as their battlefield. If President Xi Jinping's opponents cannot release information inside China because of the censorship apparatus, they do it outside China and then the information filters back."
Underscoring how serious the Chinese government has been about controlling online communications, a widely used indigenous VPN service was abruptly shut down last month after receiving an order from one of China's communications regulators.
However, the VPN order won't just affect individuals, but also companies making goods and offering services in China, who need to secure valuable intellectual property communicated over networks to and from facilities in China.
In February this year, the Cyberspace Administration of China proposed a series of measures intended to, as it put it, bolster online security. The measures included a new commission to monitor internet risks and the vetting of devices connected to the internet.
Operators of critical infrastructure, such as ISPs, would only be able to use approved hardware and software, although critics suggested that this was also a protectionist measure intended to help indigenous companies.
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