Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Climing over the Great Firewall


As the Chinese government further restricts online communication, virtual private networks are trying to overcome the barriers.

There are alternatives to the blocked services, but let's just admit that the features on the censored sites are still the most appealing and user-friendly.

IT began with Line and KakaoTalk, foreign instant messaging apps, around July last year.

Instagram was next, during the height of the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in September.

I remember reaching out for my mobile phone one day after I woke up, checking my Instagram feed as part of my morning ritual, but for some reason, it just would not load smoothly.

Last month, the default mail app in my phone, which is synced to my Gmail account, also stopped working.

These bans imposed by China restricted communication even further as sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Google and Youtube have long been inaccessible in mainland. The censorship is put in place to control what the people see online.

Frustrated, a fellow foreign journalist commented: “The Chinese government has been actively advocating connectivity, but the ban is causing the total opposite.”

To overcome the inconveniences, foreigners residing in China and some Chinese nationals rely mainly on virtual private networks (VPNs) to access the blocked sites and apps.

With a fee, VPNs help users bypass restrictions and censorship on their mobile phones and computers by connecting them to servers outside China.

The act of using VPNs is cheekily known as “fan qiang” or “climbing over the wall” as the censorship is referred to as the Great Firewall, after the Great Wall of China.

Of course, there are alternatives to the blocked services, but let’s just admit that the features on the censored sites are still the most appealing and user-friendly.

Communicating with the world outside China is also easier with the common platforms of Gmail and Facebook, but unfortunately, accessing them within the borders of China is difficult.

Lately, the grip on the Internet was tightened with the Chinese authorities clamping down on VPN services. Users reported interruptions and failures to connect to VPNs.

Responding to the interrupted services, an official from the Industry and Information Technology Ministry (MIIT) said in a press conference this week that the move is essential for the healthy development of the Internet in China.

MIIT director of telecom development Wen Ku said the ministry has to employ new methods to “maintain cyber security and steady operation” with the rapid development of the Internet.

He reminded foreign sites to abide by Chinese laws if they want to operate in the country.

“Certain negative content should be regulated according to the Chinese law,” he said.

To a question on whether blocking VPNs would affect the vitality of the Internet, Wen said the development of Internet services in China is concrete proof of the effective policies, citing Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba as an example of success stories.

But as the Chinese saying goes, “As the virtue rises one foot, the vice rises ten feet.”

While the Chinese authorities upgraded the Great Firewall, VPN providers such as StrongVPN and Astrill vowed to overcome the disruption.

“Notice to StrongVPN users, we are currently working diligently to find a resolution with certain servers not working in China,” StrongVPN posted on its website.

It also enticed possible customers to subscribe to its services to “protect your online security, personal privacy and help promote Internet freedom”.

Astrill said the increased censorship is “just a way for China to say ‘we don’t want you here’”.

It told its users, “We know how access to unrestricted Internet is important for you and we are doing our best.”

The tug-of-war continues.

Source: Check-in China by Tho Xin Yin

The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

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