Russia and China have both recently taken action against the use of VPNs, virtual private networks. VPNs enable internet users in one country to surf the web as if they are in another.

Up until now, China has taken a selective approach to prohibiting VPN use - usually choosing to look away when people tunnelled through the "great firewall" that Beijing has put in place to regulate access to the internet. Their new approach requires the support of companies like Apple, which has obeyed an order from Beijing to remove VPN apps from its Chinese App store.

In the globalised world, a business needs the internet... Everybody needs access to information. This is not even about politics. But, if you let politics trump everything it could be self-defeating.

Ying Chan, director, Journalism and Media Studies Centre, University of Hong Kong

Russia has a more open internet than China, but it's just passed a new law banning VPNs and other proxy servers. 

Beijing's approach is more subtle, but in both countries, the pattern is unmistakable: the powers that be are out to limit - and, in effect, decide - what you can or cannot see and do online.

"The way that Russia regulates the internet is in some ways very different from the way that China regulates the internet," explains Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "China's regulations are backed by a very complicated 'great firewall' of China, and so they take a lot of very advanced technical measures to block things in transit. Russia, on the other hand, has only extremely primitive internet censorship technology."

Apple was an easy target for Beijing because the company does not allow for open-source app development. Users who want apps for their Apple products must shop for them at the company's app store - unlike Android phones, which allow their users to acquire apps from anywhere. The closed shop makes Apple easier for authoritarian governments to control.

"Apple is not the first internet company that give in to China's demands and controls," explains Ying Chan, director, Journalism and Media Studies Centre, University of Hong Kong. "It follows a list of many companies. China's a big market. The report just came out, a couple of days ago, that Chinese internet users now numbered more than 700 million. That is more than the total population of Europe. So, can you give up the market?".

Apple is acutely aware of the price western tech companies pay for riling Beijing.

Twitter and Facebook were both legal in China until 2009, before butting heads with the authorities over censorship and getting banned. Twitter has effectively been replaced by Sino Weibo, a micro-blogging service that cooperates with censors.

Still, a source at Twitter reportedly told a tech site last year that, despite the ban, it still had 10 million users in China - accessing Twitter via VPNs.

Those users could well become casualties of the new VPN policy- and they won't be the only ones.

"I actually worry about other avenues which are getting stifled by banning or blocking of VPNs," says Jayaram. "So academics have been complaining, saying 'Look I'm not a terrorist, I'm not even political. I'm not a dissident, I'm not doing anything that's wrong. I'm not trying to access content that's troubling. I just want to look at the latest research in my field.' I think the other thing that is really critical is: what about business?"

According to Sunday Yokubaitis, president of Golden Frog VPN, blocking all VPNs in China would have an economic effect.

"There's a struggle going on in China saying, 'Hey, you know, we want to control the political conversation. But if we do that, we're going to lose economically.' How they're going to solve that potentially is, they're going to have approved VPNs, that only the government controls. So it's about control, I think, in China - versus outright blocking," says Yokubaitis.

With technology travelling fast, those out to stop it are seldom far behind. And other governments are watching this game of cat and mouse in China - copycats, in waiting.

"There are many countries all over the world, including Russia and Iran, that look at China's heavily censored internet as a model for how they would like to go forward," explains Galperin. "Internet censorship is also extremely common in Turkey where it is extremely political. There's a lot of censorship of journalists, of political content and as a result, the use of VPNs in Turkey is routine."


Eva Galperin, director of cyber security, Electronic Frontier Foundation
Sunday Yokubaitis, president, Golden Frog VPN
Ying Chan, director, Journalism and Media Studies Centre, University of Hong Kong
Malavika Jayaram, executive director, Digital Asia Hub

Source: Al Jazeera