Amazon's China Partner Bans Use of VPNs by Customers Amid Ongoing Clampdown

The ever-broadening crackdown on VPNS will likely jeopardize businesses' information security strategies, one industry analyst says.

China Network Management Police check an internet cafe in Beijing, in a file photo.

A Chinese partner of global e-commerce firm Amazon has told customers to stop using virtual private networks (VPNs), commonly used in the country to circumvent internet censorship.

An employee who answered the phone at Beijing Sinnet Technology Co Ltd, which operates Amazon's cloud business, Amazon Web Services (AWS), in China, confirmed the new policy to Reuters on Wednesday.

"If we discover (clients using unapproved VPNs), we will shut down services," the agency quoted the employee as saying.

The move is in line with recent directives from Beijing's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), which issued orders at the beginning of the year requiring VPNs to seek licenses from the government before operating.

Political commentators say the ruling Chinese Communist Party leadership is keen to ensure total control over what China's 731 million internet users can see online, ahead of a crucial political meeting later in the year.

Officials including President Xi Jinping have repeatedly spoken in favor of "internet sovereignty," in which online "borders" would mimic those in real life.

On Sunday, Apple said it had removed VPN apps from its Chinese store, sparking criticism from users and service providers alike, who called the step disappointing.

The company said in a statement on Sunday that it had been "required to remove some VPN apps in China that do not meet the new regulations."

VPNs are widely used in China to scale the complex system of blocks, filters, and human censorship known as the Great Firewall, and access content outside China.

Amazon told the Wall Street Journal that Sinnet is "responsible for ensuring that its customers in China comply with local laws".

"Their notice was intended to remind customers of their obligations," an Amazon spokeswoman told the newspaper.

Options remain available

Chinese rights activist Jia Pin said the apparent crackdown on VPNs will definitely make a difference to internet users in mainland China. But he said other options remain available for the time being.

"Even if Apple takes down every VPN app from its store, there is still the Google Play store," Jia said. "Take me, for example. I have both an iPhone and an Android phone with Google Play installed."

"There really are a lot of VPN apps out there."

Francis Fong, Honorary President of the Hong Kong Information Technology Association, said Amazon's ruling on VPNs will likely hit business users hardest, by compromising their information security.

"Business users must have a clear idea about this, because they can't encrypt everything," Fong said. "In the past, they could use VPNs as a form of encryption, and use it to send confidential company documents back to headquarters."

"But if they can't do that now, there is a chance that their data could be intercepted by someone."

Earlier this month, China's top three internet service providers were given notice to prevent the country's cell phone users from using circumvention tools to view online content hosted outside the Great Firewall by next February.

State-run China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom were told to ensure that their 1.3 billion subscribers can't use VPNs to access blocked content, while popular VPN provider GreenVPN was shut down in early July.

Chinese internet users have become adept at circumventing the complex array of blocks, filters, and human censorship deployed by the ruling Chinese Communist Party to control what its citizens can see online.

After censors succeeded in blocking Tor, VPNs became the tool of choice for "scaling the wall," in Chinese online parlance, and are used as much by government institutions, state-owned companies, and educational establishments as by the general public.

While officials have denied China is imposing a ban on VPNs, the licensing program suggests the government may be gearing up to allow only users it trusts to scale the Great Firewall.

Reported by Gao Feng for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.