Are Rumors of a VPN Ban Real? Yes, If This Letter is to Be Believed

By That's, July 20, 2017

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Though China's top technology authority has denied reports of an impending VPN ban by 2018, it may still happen after all — if a letter the AP claims to have seen is to be believed.

China Telecom, one of the country's top three telecommunications firms, has allegedly said that Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) for personal non-commercial use will indeed be blocked, according to the Associated Press.

Citing a letter reportedly sent from China Telecom to its corporate customers, the AP says that VPNs "will be permitted only to connect to a company’s headquarters abroad." AP reporters claim the letter also says that "VPN users are barred from linking to other sites outside China."

More details on the letter, per the AP:

"It was unclear how many companies received China Telecom’s letter. The American and European Chambers of Commerce in Beijing said their members had not reported receiving it.

"The letter, which bears no date, says VPNs are for 'internal office use only' and only can connect to a company’s headquarters abroad, not to any other websites. That would block users from seeing business news or other information sources that are shielded by the filters.

"Companies are required to provide the identities of every employee who uses a VPN, according to the letter."

AP reporters also claim the letter repeats a series of of new rules issued in January of this year aimed at regulating the Internet access services sector and cracking down on 'illegal' or 'unlicensed' business activity. Among the regulations is one which prevents domestic telecom companies and Internet service providers from setting up special lines such as VPNs without prior government approval.

READ MORE: VPNs to Be Blocked in China By February 2018?

Last week, unnamed officials told Bloomberg that telecommunications providers China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom were ordered to bar virtual private network (VPN) access by February 1, 2018. But China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) dismissed the rumors as false, saying that recent news in foreign media of a VPN ban were untrue and that it never issued such a notice to the telecom firms. The MIIT did note, however, that they are still reviewing the regulations.

Meanwhile, rumors of a ban have started to take effect. The Waldorf Astoria Beijing, for example, has already started playing it safe, issuing a notice to its guests recently stating that it is no longer offering VPN service, according to an image shared by Bloomberg reporter on Twitter. The letter says that the hotel stopped providing VPN service as of July 14 “due to legal issues.” No doubt we can expect more of this to come from other establishments.

Waldorf Astoria Beijing VPN letter

Other recent developments also indicate that China might indeed still be working to crack down on VPNs. 

In March, for instance, Chongqing authorities announced strict rules stipulating that individual users and companies could be fined up to RMB15,000 if they were caught using a VPN. Some speculated that similar measures could soon be rolled out across the rest of the country.

READ MORE: China Cracking Down on Unauthorized VPNs

And late last month, we reported on rumors that VPNs would be removed from Apple and Android's Chinese app markets by July 1. (However, a search of the term ‘VPN’ on the Chinese Apple Store still pulls up a number of downloads, including Astrill, ExpressVPN and Onekey, indicating talk of VPNs being taken down may have been premature).

VPN crackdowns have been announced several times in the past, but plenty of people in China still use them. While it's unclear if a crackdown is finally happening for real this time, one thing is certain: any move to do so is sure to spook foreign nationals and companies working within China. 

[Middle image via @QiZHAI]

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