Police in China are making arrests and issuing fines for people and companies using software to access blocked internet content in a widening crackdown on those who “illegally access international networks.”
Using a 1996 law formulated at the dawn of the internet in China, authorities have escalated a campaign against censorship circumvention tools, arresting people for using popular services such as Astrill and Lantern to access YouTube, Twitter, Wikipedia and other websites.
On Oct. 24, for example, police seized a person named Zhang Tao, who was penalized for using Lantern “to illegally visit the Wikipedia website for information.” Wikipedia was accessible to Chinese internet users until April, 2019.
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The Great Firewall of China, the thicket of technological obstacles that filters the global internet, erects barriers for virtual private networks or VPNs – which defeat Internet blocks by smuggling data – often rendering them unusable. But tens of millions of Chinese people have used censorship circumvention software to “cross the wall" and browse everything from pornography to foreign academic resources, with few repercussions.
Now, however, detailed records published online by Zhejiang province show authorities moving against the very act of accessing unapproved parts of the internet through VPNs that are not government-approved.
In most cases, offenders are punished with an on-the-spot admonishment.
But police have also issued fines, confiscated thousands of dollars earned through online activity, seized routers and ordered "the suspension of networking,” effectively cutting off users from the internet. In some cases, police have punished trading companies that were using VPN software to access the wider internet for the purposes of “international networking.”
The point of these police efforts is to send signals to others that no form of circumvention is acceptable, said a co-founder of GreatFire.org, which monitors and seeks to skirt Chinese censorship. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the source because people who work against internet blocks risk arrest.
The arrests and fines follow a series of other measures that suggest a broad new effort to choke off access to information unsanctioned by Beijing, as schools, government offices and workplaces alike increase demands for conformity to the Communist Party’s ideological dictates.
People have been arrested for their posts on Twitter, which is inaccessible on the Chinese internet. Apple has deleted hundreds of VPNs from its App Store in China. Last year, Chinese authorities substantially expanded the list of banned foreign news services, including The Globe and Mail.
The extent of the VPN crackdown is not clear. News reports show police arresting VPN users in the provinces of Hunan, Hubei and Guizhou. Most other major provinces do not have centralized digital repositories for administrative punishment records.
In the province of Zhejiang, records show the first such arrest in 2018, with a few more last year. But the number of arrests has increased sharply this year.
“There’s no doubt that similar things are happening much more often this year,” said Mo Shaoping, a prominent Chinese human-rights lawyer. “Restrictions for online communities and activities have become increasingly strict. The number of cases in which people are held legally accountable is also growing,” even for reposting controversial foreign content domestically.
The Globe spoke with officers at two police stations that have made VPN-related arrests. One said the subject was too sensitive to discuss and suggested faxing questions to the provincial office of the Public Security Bureau. The Globe was unable to locate a fax number for that office. The Zhejiang government website that contained the records deleted the ability to search for them Thursday, after word of the arrests drew anger and mockery on Chinese social media.
The records do not disclose exactly how police discovered people using censorship circumvention tools. But they make repeated references to people using Baidu, China’s Google equivalent, to search for such software. In one case, a person named Pan Binglin was admonished for using a cellphone to search Baidu for Shadowrocket software from Room 101 in Building 15 at a company owned by a state-run oil company.
Some people accessed foreign websites for online gaming or gambling. Several sought pornography. Some wanted to use apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram, both blocked in China, or to access Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and foreign news sources. Most were investigated and admonished.
Still others ran into trouble for trying to do business overseas. Yu Chunlei, a manager in the Puxi Industrial Park, bought a router equipped with a VPN last year “to contact overseas customers for foreign trade affairs,” a record states. That act “constituted unauthorized establishment and use of non-statutory channels for international networking.” The man was fined $200.
Police confiscated about $4,000 in “illegal income” from a Zheng Kening, who sold subscriptions to “illegal channels for international networking.” Officers fined Lin Huile $390 and confiscated another $377 for providing VPN-equipped routers.
Critics are questioning why the police would even bother.
Most people who want access to foreign websites just hope to look up academic information, said Yan, an amateur coder arrested in 2018 after he built a tool to bypass content deletion on Chinese social media. The Globe is not disclosing his full name because he fears reprisals from authorities.
“Some e-commerce operators use it to do business online,” he said. “Cutting them all off doesn’t make sense.”
With a report from Alexandra Li
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