China’s Website and VPN Blocking Hurts Business, US Says

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The US Government sees China's "Great Firewall" and the associated VPN crackdown as a serious threat to American companies. The censorship efforts are affecting billions of dollars in business, the US Trade Representative writes in its latest Foreign Trade Barriers report. In addition, the new VPN ban causes privacy concerns.

The Chinese government is known to keep a tight grip on the websites its citizens are allowed to see on the Internet.

The so-called ‘Great Firewall’ blocks pirate sites, but also a wide variety of other websites which the government believes could have a negative influence on society.

While the exact scope of the blocking effort is unknown, it’s certain that thousands of websites are affected.

The US Government, however, is not happy with this type of censorship. In its latest Trade Barriers report, the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) notes that it has a detrimental impact on businesses around the world.

“China continues to engage in extensive blocking of legitimate websites, imposing significant costs on both suppliers and users of web-based services and products,” the report reads.

The Chinese blocking efforts are affecting billions of dollars in business according to the US. The services that are affected include app stores, news sites, as well as communication services.

While many of these are targeted intentionally, some are hit by over-blocking. This happens when a blocked site shares an IP-address with other sites, which are then censored as collateral damage.

“While becoming more sophisticated over time, the technical means of blocking, dubbed the Great Firewall, still often appears to affect sites that may not be the intended target, but that may share the same Internet Protocol address,” USTR writes.

According to industry figures, twelve of the top thirty most popular sites on the Internet are currently censored in China. And while it used to be relatively easy to bypass these measures with a VPN, that is changing too.

Starting this month, all unauthorized VPN services are banned. Companies can only operate a VPN if they lease state-approved services via the Government. This is hurting even more businesses, according to the US. Not just in their pockets, but also in terms of privacy.

“In the past, consumers and business have been able to avoid government-run filtering through the use of VPN services, but a crackdown in 2017 has all but eliminated that option, with popular VPN applications now banned,” USTR writes.

“This development has had a particularly dire effect on foreign businesses, which routinely use VPN services to connect to locations and services outside of China, and which depend on VPN technology to ensure confidentiality of communications.”

Ironically, US companies are assisting the Chinese Government to keep their Great Firewall up. For example, last year VPN applications started to disappear from Apple’s iOS store following pressure from Chinese authorities.

It’s clear that the United States is not happy with China’s censorship regime. However, it’s unlikely that we’ll see a reversal anytime soon. As long as China is willing to jail its citizens for operating VPN services, there’s still a long way to go.

A copy of USTR’s 2018 National Trade Estimate Report on Foreign Trade Barriers is available here (pdf).

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