Censorship in China: What is Really at Stake?

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Recently, China has tightened its control over VPNs (virtual private networks), the systems that allowed many of its people to access banned sites. Basically, a VPN is a private network that sends and receives data through public systems. It remains private through a combination of dedicated connections and encryption, and is like a shield through which users can view the internet away from prying eyes. In the Western world, many users employ VPNs to surf in complete privacy, ensuring that their browsing data is protected by encryption at all times. Considering the new proposed legislation in the UK that would force all ISPs to save all of the browsing data of all of their users, and the prevalence of data-logging software in general, it’s easy to see why many users may choose to use a VPN simply as a matter of principle.

In China, however, VPNs are usually used to get around the Great Firewall and access censored information in safety. They are also often used by banks and other businesses to ensure the complete privacy of their data exchange. Currently, many connections are being terminated where a VPN is detected. While VPN providers can work around these blockages, Chinese censors can identify the work-around and block it just as quickly.

Some commentators have suggested that this is more than just an issue of simple censorship, and that the specific intention of the Chinese authorities is to force business operations to be carried out on the public internet with complete transparency. This would mean that they would be able to basically monitor the activities of all businesses operating in the area.
Whether this is or is not the case remains to be seen, but it seems as though the situation is an unacceptable one for many businesses that simply cannot operate without the security of a VPN. Rather than risk having their corporate communications glimpsed by competitors (who could easily utilise underhanded tactics to gain sensitive information if it wasn’t enclosed in the safety of a VPN), many international companies will choose to withdraw from China altogether. Additionally, many international businesses operating in China rely on access to the international internet services they are able to reach through a VPN. Without these services, they would be unable to operate.
This may seem like a strange move for the Chinese authorities to make, considering the impact it could have on their economy, but perhaps it is a sacrifice they are willing to make if it means mainland Chinese internet users are forced to rely on the domestic e-commerce industry. Considered from this angle, it does in fact seem like a direct attack on international business, and a way of protecting their economy from the dominance of international corporations.
The Chinese market is a significant one. With 500 million users, it’s not surprising that Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook is said to be in negotiations to bring a version of Facebook to the country (having recently been spotted in China with his wife). In the absence of major web services such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, China has, however, developed its own versions that comply with the censor’s demands.
The US is known for being vocal about its advocacy of free speech. Most recently, they were the first to refuse to sign the updated version of the ITU treaty proposed at the WCIT (world conference on international telecommunications), supposedly because it would have allowed for greater levels of governmental control over the internet. As the world leader in the area of e-commerce and social media, the US is the country that has the most to lose out from censorship. While they may well hold the principle of free speech in high regard, it’s worth bearing in mind that this is less about morals and more about economics.
There is no doubt that users in China will find a way to circumvent these new blockages and access the international internet as they always have done. In April last year, security experts publicly posted a guide to getting around the Chinese blockage of the Tor network, because each time the Great Firewall is upgraded, the ways around it are simply modified too. These ways are illegal, however, which means that international businesses won’t legitimately be able to use these methods.
This new situation in China may seem like another small gaining of ground for censorship, but as Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei said in The Guardian last year, ultimately China’s leadership will have to understand that they simply "can’t control the Internet unless they shut it off", just as they can’t control the free flow of ideas. In Weiwei’s words, "ultimately the Internet is uncontrollable. And if the Internet is uncontrollable, freedom will win."

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