China's top three internet service providers have been given until next February to prevent the country's cell phone users from using circumvention tools to view online content hosted outside the Great Firewall.
State-run China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom have all been told to ensure their 1.3 billion subscribers can't access blocked content with virtual private networks, or VPNs, Bloomberg reported on Tuesday.
The report comes after the government shut down popular VPN provider GreenVPN last week, and as industry regulator the Ministry of Information Industry strenuously denied reports it had licensed ChuanglianVPN to sell its services as part of a nationwide licensing campaign for trusted vendors.
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 "climbing 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.
The reported licensing program had suggested the government may be gearing up to allow only users it trusts to scale the Great Firewall.
"Recent online reports have said the Ministry of Information Industry issued the first ever VPN sales license to ChuanglianVPN," the ministry said in a statement dated July 7. "But investigations have shown that this is false information."
"The company involved has never received a telecommunications business license from either the Ministry of Information Industry or the Ministry of Communications," it said.
The ministry warned in a set of new regulations in January that "no cross-border activities such as private lines (including virtual private network VPNs) shall be established or leased, without the approval of the relevant telecommunications authorities."
"Core telecom enterprises must keep files on all users to whom they lease direct international lines, and should make it explicitly clear to account-holders that they are for internal business use only, and not for connection to overseas data centers," it said.
A costly move
Blogger and free-speech activist Zhou Shuguang, known online by his nickname "Zola," said that while it isn't yet clear if all VPN activity will be banned from Feb. 1, 2018, while that move is within the government's technical capabilities, it would be costly to implement such a move.
"If the authorities really wanted to shut down all VPNs, so that only protocol ports it trusted were able to get online, and all the others were blocked ... this would be very difficult, and it would cost a lot of money," Zhou said.
"But this would be a huge blow to the Chinese internet ... and I don't really believe the government would want to harm the economy by shutting down VPNs entirely," he said.
Online activist Xiao Biao said he fears the administration of President Xi Jinping fully aims to take total control over online content, however.
"I don't think this is surprising at all, because the government has been stepping up its control over every aspect of society for some time now," he said. "They are waging an information war in the internet era."
But he said he fully expects other circumvention tools to emerge, should VPNs days be numbered.
"There will be other ways to get around these controls," Xiao Biao said.
An internet user who asked to remain anonymous said he fully expects the move to limit his freedom to browse.
"It seems as if everything's going to get a whole lot stricter from Feb. 1 next year," the user said. "This will affect our ability to visit overseas websites, because right now they can only be viewed with a VPN."
Reported by Ding Wenqi for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.