China cracks down on tools used to get around web filters

In this Aug. 16, 2016 photo, attendees walk past a live visualization of internet attacks across China during the 4th China Internet Security Conference (ISC) in Beijing. A Chinese technology regulator has announced Sunday, Jan 23, 2017 a year-long campaign to root out services that allow people in the country to circumvent the government's Internet censorship. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
In this Aug. 16, 2016 photo, an attendee takes a photo of a visualization of global internet attacks during the 4th China Internet Security Conference (ISC) in Beijing. A Chinese technology regulator has announced Sunday, Jan. 23, 2017, a year-long campaign to root out services that allow people in the country to circumvent the government's Internet censorship. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

BEIJING — China is beefing up a campaign to root out services that circumvent the government's internet censorship with a 14-month-long "clean-up" of the internet industry.

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said in a directive that it forbids the operation of virtual private networks (VPNs) or leased lines that allow users and businesses to access blocked overseas websites without government permission.

Between now and March 2018, authorities will enforce the regulations with inspections of cloud-hosting and content-delivery services, an industry that has shown signs of "disorderly development," the ministry said Sunday.

The new enforcement measures are the latest steps in the Chinese government's efforts to cement its grip over the domestic internet and closely control what information may be accessed by the country's 731 million internet users.

President Xi Jinping's administration has championed a vision of "internet sovereignty" in which governments have the right to wall off their nation's cyberspace from unwanted elements as if it were physical territory.

The censors' reach has extended beyond websites.

Earlier this month, China's top internet regulator said it would begin regulating mobile app store offerings after it found apps that disseminated information it considered illegal or a danger to social stability. The announcement came weeks after Apple removed apps by The New York Times from its app store in China in response to a government request.

To get around the government's filters, numerous foreign and domestic companies in China use VPNs to conduct business, and private citizens often use the technology to access banned foreign websites such as Google, Facebook and overseas news outlets.

In response, China has blocked access to VPNs and regularly disrupts their channels.

Wu Xiaodong, director of the China Digital Information and Security Industrial Alliance, said VPN services have previously been targeted by Chinese regulators but never with this degree of clarity.

Under the new directive, all internet service providers, data centers and content distribution networks must be licensed with the government. They must also conduct "self-inspections" for any unlawful activity taking place on their servers, which would include those discreetly providing VPN services.

A co-founder of U.S.-supported anti-censorship group Greatfire.org who goes by the pseudonym Charlie Smith said it was unclear whether the internet services industry would comply with government orders to fully snuff out VPNs.

"They will push back, quietly ... if they deem the cost of running these checks to be too high," said Smith, whose group helps internet users inside China bypass blockages on censored content. "Even the authorities recognize that there are legitimate needs for VPNs and other circumvention services."

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