Foreign firms in China prepare for VPN curbs

Beijing crackdown means individuals, firms can no longer circumvent Internet controls

BEIJING • Chinese people and foreign firms are facing up to today's deadline that will curb the use of unlicensed software to circumvent Internet controls, as the government plugs holes in its "Great Firewall".

A virtual private network (VPN) can tunnel through the country's sophisticated barrier of online filters to access the global internet.

VPNs give users a way to see blocked websites such as Facebook, Twitter, Google and Western news outlets, as well as certain business network tools such as timesheets, e-mail and directories.

But new government regulations unveiled last year sent chills among users of the software, with today's deadline for companies and individuals to use only government-approved VPNs.

Many foreign firms have their own VPN servers in locations outside of China. But in the future, dedicated lines can only be provided by China's three telecom operators.

Critics have slammed the new policy as a revenue grab that will eliminate cheaper VPN options and make Internet users more vulnerable to surveillance.

But some companies are still planning to comply.

ANOTHER HURDLE

Limiting access to affordable VPNs will make it harder for these companies to operate efficiently and just adds to the frustration of doing business in China.

MR KENNETH JARRETT, president of the American Chamber of Commerce Shanghai.

"We will apply for a VPN line with (the government)," the chief executive of a foreign-owned technology firm told Agence France-Presse.

"As a company that is globally-focused based in Beijing, I think that's the best option... because we don't want to break the rules or have our VPN access disrupted," she said, requesting anonymity.

Some embassies in Beijing experienced disruptions to their communications due to restrictions on VPN usage late last year, prompting the European Union delegation to send a letter to the government to complain, said diplomatic sources.

American Chamber of Commerce Shanghai president Kenneth Jarrett warned that foreign companies and their employees could "bear the brunt of the new policies".

"Foreign companies, especially entrepreneurs and smaller companies, rely on overseas platforms such as Google Analytics and Google Scholar," Mr Jarrett said.

"Limiting access to affordable VPNs will make it harder for these companies to operate efficiently and just adds to the frustration of doing business in China."

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has dismissed concerns that using state-approved providers could jeopardise the security of private data, saying they "are not able to see information related to your business".

A member of the China-based anti-censorship group GreatFire.org, which tracks Internet restrictions, said the new rules are aimed at wiping out low-cost Chinese VPN providers and increasing control over access to information.

"Are foreign companies at the mercy of Chinese regulators? Yes, probably. Will there be more surveillance? Absolutely," said the member, who uses the alias Charlie Smith.

Under the new licensing regulations, it is unclear whether companies or individuals will be punished for using unauthorised VPNs, or if the software will be blocked.

Ms Samm Sacks, who researches China's technology policy at the US-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said it is likely that China will be lenient to most foreign companies.

"We will probably see selective enforcement. So far, there have not been many foreign companies that have experienced problems with their company VPNs," Ms Sacks said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 31, 2018, with the headline 'Foreign firms in China prepare for VPN curbs'. Print Edition | Subscribe