Are Corporate VPNs Getting Disrupted in China?

By That's, January 17, 2018

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At least five international companies and organizations in China — including two European embassies — have reportedly been experiencing disruptions with their Virtual Private Network (VPN) software, according to the Financial Times.

The FT reports that some of the companies and embassies have allegedly been unable to access their custom-built corporate VPNs in recent months. 

An American non-profit and a British firm told the FT that their customized VPNs had been blocked. Meanwhile, an employee at a US Fortune 500 company claimed that it was becoming "increasingly difficult" to access blocked websites from their office. And the chief executive of a US tech firm said that its employees abandoned VPNs completely due to disruptions. They've since resorted to using global SIM cards to bypass the Great Firewall.

The European Union, meanwhile, allegedly sent a complaint to the Chinese government in December after embassies for two European countries found their VPN access restricted.

A US trade group also claimed that a number of multinationals in China have been experiencing internet issues as of late.

“American companies have come to us from a range of sectors — finance, technology, hospitality — reporting disruptions to VPNs, email and file-sharing,” Jake Parker, vice president of China operations at the US-China Business Council, told the FT.

READ MORE: China Denies It's Blocking VPNs by February 2018

Accoding to the FT, regulators have also allegedly begun pushing multinational companies to switch to "state-approved VPNs," which are said to cost tens of thousands of dollars per month.

The FT report comes in the wake of several other recent claims that a VPN clampdown may be imminent.

Earlier this month, employees of China Telecom denied reports that a VPN ban was coming on January 11. The denials were in response to a widely-shared post from Network World claiming that a new policy supposedly going into effect would require China's commercial Internet service providers (ISPs) to block ports commonly used to allow VPN and software-defined wide-area network (SD-WAN) access for corporate customers who hadn't registered by January 10, 2018. The alleged notice did not indicate an exact date when the ports would be closed, nor did it address whether individuals using personal VPNs would be impacted.

READ MORE: China's VPN Crackdown Aimed at 'Illegal Users'

Prior to that, a July 2017 Bloomberg report — which was subsequently denied by China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) — claimed that three major Chinese telecom providers (Telecom, China Mobile and China Unicom) had been ordered to halt personal VPN use through their networks by February 1, 2018. Other rumors suggest a full ban is coming by March 1.

VPN ban?

Later, the MIIT clarified that new rules issued in January 2017 were specifically targeting 'illegal users' and 'unlicensed' business activity. Among the regulations was one which prevented domestic telecom firms and ISPs from setting up special lines such as VPNs without government approval. 

Speculation of an impending ban was further fueled in July when major VPN software was removed from China's Apple App Store — 674 VPN apps, to be exact. 

And just a few months before that, Chongqing authorities released strict rules stipulating that individual users and firms could be fined up to RMB15,000 if they were caught using a VPN. Some believed that similar measures could very well soon be rolled out across China.

[Image via Quartz]

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