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In the News

China is Building a Higher Great Firewall: Internet Turning to Intranet?

Chinese government officials are adamant about blocking out "bad information" coming from the Internet amidst growing frustration among Chinese netizens who report that access to outside websites via virtual private networks (VPNs) has been blocked.

Wen Ku, director of telecom development at the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, defended China's move to upgrade its Great Firewall to block VPNs at the protocol level, thus preventing Chinese Internet users from using these VPNs to access public information-sharing websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and private communications services such as Gmail, Outlook, and instant messaging services.

On Wednesday, Wen spoke to local media saying that all online services in China "need to abide to Chinese laws." He added that "bad information will be dealt with in accordance with the laws."

"Internet development in China should be in line with the law and some improper information should be regulated," Wed said. "New measures will be adopted when a new situation emerges on the Internet."

The Chinese crackdown on foreign Internet services, particularly Google and its numerous services, began in 2009, when the search engine decided not to give in to Chinese demands to block certain information from the search results. Last month, China blocked access to Gmail, but individuals who had $10 or so to spare each month could still access Gmail and other websites by paying for a VPN.

On Wednesday, however, VPN providers such as Astrill and StrongVPN confirmed that their customers were unable to access foreign websites because of a new upgrade to the Great Firewall that disrupts VPN services at the protocol level.

"It means that the firewall does not need to identify each VPN provider and block its IP addresses," said the founder of a foreign website that monitors Chinese Internet. "Rather, it can spot VPN traffic during transit and block it."

A representative from Astrill said VPN protocols used for iOS devices were inaccessible in almost real-time, while it and other providers say intermittent VPN access is available to some computers, which use a different protocol.

The move to block VPNs in China comes hot on the heels of an announcement made over state-owned media that China is providing incentives that encourage foreign nationals to build startups and promote innovation in the country.

"In the future, the model will be more market-oriented and driven mainly by demand and employers' development priorities," said Zhang Jianguo, director of the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs. "China has missed the opportunity to attract multinationals to the country as the engine for innovation. Now, with individual innovation booming, China can take advantage of this trend to leverage its development."

But the state-sponsored restricted access to the Internet, officially called Golden Shield, defeats China's purpose to attract the innovation that it wants to happen in the country. In this global economy, free and unfettered access to the Internet is a requirement for ideas to flow and plans to get carried out smoothly and efficiently.

Last year, the European Chamber of Commerce complained that the "massively slow Internet connection speeds" in China, which ranks 93rd in a list of connection speeds by country according to Akamai Technologies, prevents businesses and individuals from conducting proper research, which poses a barrier to improvement and diminishes the overall quality of life.
The American Chamber of Commerce in China chimed in, saying that the "excessive control over email and Internet traffic" hinders the free flow of ideas and information, which are needed to generate innovative new services that will give China a leg up in the global economy.

"That is not something in China's best interest," James Zimmerman, Chamber chairman, said.

But Chinese analysts believe a state-controlled Internet is necessary for safety, and the decision to block VPN services is part of the Chinese government's ability to govern its own network.

"Authorities apparently cannot ignore those services as they affect our cyberspace sovereignty," said Qin An, security expert at the China Institute for Innovation and Development Strategy. "For instance, a shortcut has to be blocked since it could be used for some ulterior purposes although it might affect others who use it in a right way."



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