In a move unlikely to surprise those who access the Internet from mainland China, the country’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology recently blocked several popular tools used to bypass the “Great Firewall” national Internet censorship system. Citing the need to protect “cyberspace sovereignty” and to “maintain cyber security and steady operation,” the Ministry changed firewall rules to block three increasingly popular commercial virtual private network (VPN) services.
China operates the world’s largest and most sophisticated Internet censorship infrastructure. Colloquially called the “Great Firewall,” this infrastructure blocks a huge amount of content deemed contrary to China’s interests as a nation. However, as with any such censorship infrastructure, people will try to access content despite the restrictions — creating a game of cat and mouse between censors, citizens, and online service providers.
Any online service which provides its users or readers with secure access is not amenable to fine-grained automated filtering. Censors have the choice of blocking the service outright, or running the risk that some forbidden knowledge may slip through. Outright blocking of large mostly-non-subversive services like Twitter and Gmail has a counter-censorship knock on effect. Since most content is non-subversive, regular citizens legitimately want to access some of it, but are unable to do so due to the censorship regime.
This creates substantial demand for counter-censorship tools, and there are various ways for those in China to access restricted content — whether that’s “subversive” information about banned religious group Falun Gong or useful business tools like Gmail. Censors have a tough line to walk between allowing access to useful tools which merely have the potential to communicate banned content, and ensuring that nobody ever accesses such material.
Inevitably, this means that the censors at the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology sometimes turn a blind eye to censorship-circumvention tools, until their use becomes too well known and the censor’s hand is forced. The recent blocking of three VPN tools is likely just the latest salvo in the larger skirmish of China’s far-reaching and unacceptable censorship regime.
An economic disruption
Whatever the Ministry’s reasons for the latest change, it’s clear that China’s censorship regime is counter-productive at best, and likely very disruptive to the economy. Because “successful” censorship requires blocking everything that could possibly be used to sneak around the restrictions, Chinese companies are denied access to some of the world’s most useful secure online collaboration tools and critical enabling technologies.
Many pieces of free and open source software; all of Google’s online collaboration tools; numerous secure communication and remote-management tools — all are unavailable in mainland China. These technologies allow small, distributed, and high-tech business to grow and work faster and more reliably than ever before. Entrepreneurs and small businesses from Silicon Valley to Berlin rely on them. But they simply aren’t accessible in China.
Beyond the fact that China’s censorship is an unethical infringement on a free press and a free society, it’s a drain on China’s global economic competitiveness.
UPDATE: The seventh paragraph has been corrected to reflect that Github’s services are available in China.
Tom Lowenthal is the Committee to Protect Journalists’ staff technologist and resident expert in operational security and surveillance self-defense. He is also a freelance journalist on security and tech policy matters. Follow him on Twitter @flamsmark.
A version of this post originally appeared on CPJ’s Internet Channel. The Committee to Protect Journalists is a New York-based, independent, non-profit organization that works to safeguard press freedom worldwide. You can learn more at CPJ.org or follow the CPJ on Twitter @pressfreedom or on Facebook here.