For years now, the Chinese government has played a game. Officially, certain online activities were against the law. And things being against the law in China, which is still using its old Maoist-era prison camps as detention centers, is no laughing matter.
But while the law forbids you to use Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, and Reddit, among other online communities, and bars access to many news publishers too, it’s always been possible to exercise a bit of savvy, get a VPN, and gain access to them fairly safely.
China’s crackdown comes in the wake of a decision that should send shivers down the spine of anyone who knows about history. The country’s leader, head of the Communist Party in a one-party state, has abolished presidential term limits. The Communist Party took over the country; now, Xi Jinping has taken over the Communist Party.
What does this mean for China’s gray-area internet users?
First off, it means a new rain of insane-sounding censorship on the country’s above-board internet. If you feel like you need proof that dictatorships have no sense of irony, I can help: China has banned the use of the terms ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘1984’ on the internet. And in a move seemingly calculated to show that dictatorships have no sense of the absurd either, the letter ‘N’ is also ba**ed.
This kind of tin-ear for appearances is kind of scary in itself: China’s leaders can afford to make themselves ridiculous if they make it illegal to laugh at them. (That’s what they’re betting on, anyway.) Disagree? That’s illegal too. Seriously.
But much creepier is the simultaneous assault on China’s precarious internet underground.
As of March 31, China will simply block and prosecute anyone who uses a ‘non-approved’ VPN. The WSJ thinks ‘China’s VPN Crackdown May Aid Government Surveillance’ (hey, maybe) by exposing email and other transmissions to insecure, potentially incompetent and probably corrupt state scrutiny.
It’s a timely reminder that there are plenty of reasons to use a VPN that aren’t directly related to individual free speech and free online assembly, even in an intrusive and unlawful surveillance regime. For instance, by scaring Western firms away with threats to their data security – imagine trying to square China’s privacy crackdown with your regulatory duties under GDPR – the move will hand business to Chinese businesses.
Any VPN relies on its server network. A hostile actor – whether that’s a hacker, an identity thief or an illegal regime – can’t identify you when you use a VPN; but they can tell that a VPN’s server belongs to a network sharing device.
And the Chinese state has form using server attacks to shut down VPN networks. In January of 2015, they did it to Golden Frog’s popular VyperVPN.
‘They blocked all of our servers at the same time,’
says Golden Frog president Sunday Yokubaitis.
This contains both a lesson and a warning for Western VPN users. For us, you get a VPN with lots of servers and no logs and you’re good to go. But our digital rights depend on maintaining our other rights. China’s people, robbed of the right to dispose of Xi and the Communist party in elections, have little recourse against the further erosion of their personal rights. We do. Digital privacy is privacy; online freedom is freedom; your rights to free speech and free expression are the same rights online as off and both need to be defended.
A VPN alone won’t do it.
But boy, it sure does help!
And there’s a fightback possible online. In fact, online is one of the most potent spaces for resistance to authoritarian regimes of all sorts. In one sense, China and Russia’s clumsy clubbing at privacy tools actually empowers Western VPN users: no elected government wants to make itself look like these lumbering tyrants, even though they may lust after the same powers.
At the same time, the structure and function of the web tends to make censoring it difficult, and more and more difficult as time goes on and the skills to circumvent attacks become more widely distributed.
Golden Frog hasn’t been sitting still since 2015’s attack. It’s created a tool, Chameleon, that masks VPN traffic, making it look more like normal internet traffic.
I think Stan Hanks (inventor of the IP VPN!) says it pretty well
Stan finishes by quoting John Gilmore:
‘The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.’
Sounds good. Here’s hoping.
Meanwhile, same as always, online privacy and security starts with a VPN. For help picking the right one, check out our VPN reviews.