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China's Great Firewall is doubling up on VPN regulation

People at an internet bar on July 9, 2015 in Fuyang, Anhui Province of China.
VCG | Getty Images
People at an internet bar on July 9, 2015 in Fuyang, Anhui Province of China.

Authorities in China have tightened their grip on internet use in the country through a 14-month long campaign that will target the use of virtual private networks (VPNs) and other "illegal" internet practices.

An advisory on the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology website published on Jan. 22 stated that the campaign aimed at "cleaning up" the internet would last till Mar. 31, 2018. The release also stated that the campaign would strengthen the network information security and encourage the "healthy" development of the industry.

As part of the campaign, locally-based VPN providers need to be approved by the authorities before they can continue business or risk operating illegally. Data centers, internet service providers and content distribution networks will also have to comply with the rules.

VPNs are frequently used in China to access sites such as Facebook and YouTube that are blocked by authorities. The regulation of the internet in China is carried out through measures that are collectively known as the Great Firewall, which censor and criminalize sensitive material on the internet.

In the Freedom on the Net report published by Freedom House in 2015, China placed last in an index measuring internet freedom around the world.

Besides the VPN crackdown, the government also shut down 17 websites as part of the nationwide cleanup. Among them was the Tianze Institute of Economics website, which was run by Chinese economist Mao Yushi. Mao, an activist who has spoken out in support of greater political transparency, also had his Weibo account shut down.

State media agency Xinhua also reported today that 5,500 "illegal" apps have been taken down by regulators for circulating pornographic and violent content. The Guangdong provincial administration which took the mobile apps offline pledged to enhance cyberspace supervision in order to "maintain a healthy online environment," Xinhua added.

On Chinese social media platform Weibo, netizens were unsupportive of the move, according to What's on Weibo, a blog providing social commentary on China. "Without VPN, how can patriotic citizens go on Facebook to show our love for China. Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, wake up!" said one netizen.

This comes as Chinese President Xi Jinping recently gave his maiden speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he spoke about the "opening up" of China and the benefits of "economic globalization." China has emerged an unlikely advocate of open borders as the U.S. adopts a more protectionist stance under President Donald Trump.

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