China to spend more than a year rooting out internet services that break censorship rules

The Chinese government is launching a 14-month-long "clean-up" of the internet industry as part of its campaign to root out services which circumvent strict online controls.

China to spend more than a year rooting out internet services that break censorship rules

The Chinese government is launching a 14-month-long "clean-up" of the internet industry as part of its campaign to root out services which circumvent strict online controls.

The ministry of industry and information technology said it forbids the operation of virtual private networks (VPNs) or leased lines which 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 which has shown signs of "disorderly development", the ministry said.

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 centres and content distribution networks must be licensed by 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 US-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 Chinese government orders to fully snuff out VPNs.

He said of the firms: "They will push back, quietly ... if they deem the cost of running these checks to be too high."

Mr Smith, whose group helps internet users inside China bypass blockages on censored content, added: "Even the authorities recognise that there are legitimate needs for VPNs and other circumvention services."

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