China reinforces Great Firewall by censoring VPNs

China has expanded its censorship programme to include a number of virtual private networks or VPNs.

VPNs are used by a number of individuals to circumvent the Asian county’s draconian censorship laws, which block numerous Western sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Read more: China blocks ‘thousands’ of sites by censoring entire content delivery network

According to the Financial Times, one of the most popular VPNs in China, Astrill, has confirmed that its iOS app has been blocked.

“It’s been blocked since new year but worked with a few servers; now it is completely blocked,” explained a member of the firm’s support staff. The desktop version is available, but suffering from frequent outages.

The VPN crackdown means that many of the country’s inhabitants are now unable to access Google services including Gmail, which was blocked in December.

While it is difficult to discern the full extent of the VPN blockage as there is no publicly available data on the amount of traffic across private networks, Charlie Smith of Greatfire.org believes that recent developments are not entirely surprising.

“We have seen increased web censorship over the past year and I think drawing a correlation to the disruption of consumer-facing VPN services is not a stretch,” he said. As well as Astrill, TunnelBear and StrongVPN are also reporting issues.

CEO of Lantern, a tool used to avoid censorship, Adam Fisk told the Financial Times that blocking VPNs was a relatively straightforward process.

“VPNs use a fundamentally fragile architecture that makes them easy for censors to block in a number of ways,” he explained. “VPNs use centralised servers with fixed IP addresses that can be blocked even if those IP addresses change quickly.”

China’s decision to increase its censorship programme to include VPNs is likely to be partially motivated by the fact that they can be blocked without harming many commercial businesses. While the government’s censorship measures are considered authoritarian by UK standards, China remains careful to protect its economic interests.

Read more: Gmail becomes latest victim of the Great Firewall of China

Late last year, however, Chinese authorities temporarily blocked an entire content delivery network, cutting the country off from large swathes of the web.