December 28, 2012: China has quietly installed software that detects unauthorized VPN (Virtual Private Network) use and shuts it down. VPNs are used to establish an encrypted and anonymous connection on the Internet via a hosting company that handles the encryption for the user and assures anonymity. Since Chinese Internet users find access to many Western sites blocked by the national Internet censoring system, VPNs have been a favorite way to get around the censorship.
Otherwise known as the Golden Shield (or “Great Firewall of China” in the West) this huge information control system has been under construction for a decade. Golden Shield now has 40,000 Ministry of Public Security employees dedicated to monitoring and censoring Internet use throughout the country using specialized hardware and software. Several billion dollars has been spent on this effort. While the Great Firewall cannot stop someone expert at how the Internet works, it does greatly restrict the other 99 percent of Internet users. And it provides a lot of information about what is going on inside all that Internet traffic.
The VPN detecting software makes it more difficult to access the Internet outside of China or simply to use the Internet without the government listening in. The VPN blocking is really no surprise, as year by year the Golden Shield operators learned what worked (to control news) and what didn't. Not only can Golden Shield keep news from getting out of a part of China but it can greatly limit how much contradictory (to the government version) news gets into all of China.
Last year China created a new organization to handle Internet censorship. Called the State Internet Information Office, it consolidates all Internet censorship activity. This is being done, in part, to halt the fragmentation of Internet censorship activity. This was happening because over a dozen government agencies engage in censorship (of films, TV, radio, newspapers, books, advertising, text books, and so on). Most of these agencies have expanded their efforts to include similar material that shows up on the Internet. This was leading to turf wars, or Internet sites getting an OK from one censorship authority and a shutdown notice from another. This sort of activity is typical of government bureaucracies, no matter where they are. If you can find another job, you can justify asking for more money and people. That's how most bureaucrats define progress and success.
The main current Internet censorship agency, the Golden Shield, uses filtering tools, which block message board or blog postings that contain forbidden words or phrases. In addition, some of the Golden Shield staffers personally monitor message boards and chat rooms that are suspected of generating politically incorrect discussion of events. Internet users who say the wrong thing too often are arrested or ordered to report to a police station for an interview. Some of the more troublesome bloggers or posters go to jail.
Foreign businesses in China are concerned that they are the main target of this new VPN blocking software. With VPNs China cannot eavesdrop on Internet communications. China is notorious for stealing trade secrets and business plans of foreign companies. Eliminating the use of VPNs forces foreign firms to use other, more user-unfriendly ways to hide information from Chinese spies. That means more times when harried businessmen send files or email without encrypting them. Some foreign businessmen believe the new VPN blocking is directed more at foreign businessmen than Chinese trying to access forbidden content outside China.