State Internet: China Remote VPN Story

    Censorship is closely related to politics. The annual global freedom rating on the Internet clearly illustrates this dependence: states in which human rights are violated block “objectionable” resources or block access to the global network.

    Only 13 of the 65 countries analyzed by Freedom House researchers in 2017 do not interfere with the information freedom of their citizens. Most of the rest of the world’s Internet users can access blocked resources only with the help of VPN services. Including residents of China, where recently the hunt for unlicensed VPNs has intensified .

    Front-end developer Ararat Martirosyan, who lives in China and works remotely, told us what is happening with local VPN services and where, in his opinion, is the most free Internet. We publish his story here.

    Chronology of Constraints

    Back in 2008, Youtube was blocked in China. A year later, the time came for Twitter, Facebook and Google services - Google Docs, Google Calendar, Google Drive, and itself were blocked. In 2014, they killed access to Instagram. The official version of the authorities is that all these resources disseminate information that is undesirable for Chinese citizens, but there is another version.

    The Golden Shield project (or the Great Chinese Firewall) , which filters “dangerous” content by keywords and restricts access to sites from the local black list, has been working in China since 2003. Western social networks were not included in this list. Therefore, many believe that the massive blockages of 2008-2009 simply helped the state fight unrest.among the Uighurs in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in the west of the country. I think the same: in 2009, unrest was suppressed by force, and information about it was hidden in every way - neither the media, nor human rights activists could adequately monitor the situation. It is known that Instagram was blocked due to protests in Hong Kong.

    You can check if the Golden Shield allows you to click on the link you need through WebSitePulse.

    Together with the "distributors of inappropriate content", other useful resources were blocked. Due to the blocking of servers and IP addresses, sites that interacted with Google stopped working - they did not load, for example, Google fonts (the same thing happenedand in Russia). Also went to online colleges and just entertaining content “from the West”. An interesting fact: with a Chinese 4G SIM card, even from another country, it will not be possible to access prohibited resources.

    It was then that people realized that blocking is necessary and can be circumvented. At first there were proxies with which users could communicate with the outside world. But by 2012, the government had reached them. Then the country began booming VPN; services that have been operating in China for a long time today can withstand even the congress of the Communist Party, although during this momentous event, foreign traffic is blocked throughout the country , and life everywhere stops.

    Protectionism and VPN Expansion

    Imagine that all the resources that you are currently using are blocked. You only have to use those that are not prohibited. Chinese IT companies began to grow wildly, inventing local analogues of Western services: Youku instead of Youtube, Weibo instead of Twitter, Baidu instead of Google, WeChat instead of instant messengers (and instead of other payment systems). The blockages helped China launch a successful protectionist policy.

    Despite the abundance of Chinese services and applications, many technically savvy users began to access the Internet through a VPN. These were small and illegal services that were constantly blocked. Everything changed when Western VPN providers came to China in 2014-2015. The government obliged them to obtain a special license or to leave the country.

    Only state VPNs are legal here: such local services are licensed by the authorities and can be used by legal entities. Individuals - that is, ordinary citizens - can also use such a VPN, but for educational or scientific purposes.

    Naturally, China did everything possible to make the local VPN more accessible than the foreign one. And so it happened. There is a certain VPN package that you can use, but for access to it the user will have to go through official registration, that is, justify the state his desire to circumvent the ban and provide him with his personal data. It’s not very similar to the principles of VPN that we are all used to, right?

    A ridiculous case is widely known: the creator of the Golden Shield, speaking to students, had to use a VPN to gain access to the South Korean site. By the way, they wrote about this on Habré . Here you need to understand that using any (!) VPN in China, in general, is not prohibited, but unlicensed providers themselves can get up to 6 years in prison.

    Chinese model chip

    The trick of the Chinese control model is that everything is blocked openly here. Is the new site blacklisted? This is likely to be announced officially. Everything is regulated by law here, therefore, blockages are reported in advance in the media.

    In my experience, the Chinese do not care about locks. They do not feel longing for Facebook or Twitter. Most of them do not know any language other than Chinese: why do they need English-language YouTube if you can watch Chinese videos on Youku? In addition, Chinese design and the whole logic of building sites are very different from what the Europeans are used to.

    The main feature of China is that users are always offered an alternative to blocked resources. When Russia began to completely block Telegram, no one offered in exchange any other messenger. No one said: "Guys, we made our Telegram here, specially adapted for the Russians." Stupid offers to use ICQ or TamTam from - does not count.

    I do not support blocking, but if something is blocked, it should benefit citizens: in China, for 3-4 years, IT companies that previously could not compete with foreign services can now enter a large market. The state provides them with various benefits and strongly supports them. China has created such a narrow circle of economies with the help of legal VPNs and control over web space that local companies simply had no choice: they had all the conditions for growth. Many Chinese analogues of foreign hosting are much cooler than blocked ones.

    But there are also disadvantages. For example, in order to launch your online project, you must obtain a special ICP license. It should be on every site registered in China. It is issued by the Ministry of Industry and Informatization of the PRC. Such a license allows you to register a domain, connect to a server, bring your website to provider networks. This is a long and bureaucratically complicated procedure.

    Screen of the main page of Chinese Google - Baidu. The license number must be indicated in the footer of each Chinese site.

    Free internet?

    I have been in China since 2013 and can only work remotely thanks to a VPN. Before starting work, I included a bunch of different clients with different protocols, set them up for 2-3 hours a day, and then I forked out for a paid service and had almost no problems.

    In China, I quickly realized that free internet was a myth. In fact, each country and each region has its own firewall: almost everywhere, the network is somehow controlled. If I access the Internet from a Russian server, I get a lot of blocked resources that will be open in neighboring Kazakhstan. If I log in from a Taiwan server, then most online movie theaters and torrents will not work, as in China. To feel freer, you need to know a certain set of servers and understand what resources are available in a particular country.

    Closed Internet has already become a part of our world. Not only China, but also South Korea, and even some Australia, control their web space. In South Korea, however, everything is a little different: not resources are blocked there, but the material itself. The freest network, it seems to me, is now in Japan, Estonia, Latvia, Germany and Scandinavia.

    Artem Kozlyuk , project manager of RosKomSvoboda, on the possibility of Chinese experience in Russia:

    A repetition of the Chinese restrictive model in Russia is impossible. Infrastructure and historically, the Internet in these countries has developed in completely different ways. The Chinese began to build the Golden Shield in the 90s, since the penetration of the Internet into this country. In Russia, until 2012, the Internet developed in a free market, on the principle of self-regulation. Thanks to this, we have thousands of providers, fast and cheap Internet. Yes, since 2012, everything began to shift towards tight control of the Internet industry: hosters and telecom operators, information intermediaries, and services. But a complete restriction is not possible due to deep structural reasons. Take, for example, the Chinese multimillion-dollar army of pro-government bloggers, the “Party 5 Mao” (5 Mao = 50 kopecks: they say that bloggers pay the same amount for one comment on Weibo), which manually monitors the entire Internet space. In order to exert influence on the RuNet of the same scale and build an effective censorship machine, Russia will have to invest billions of rubles. But they are not here now.

    Of course, Russia can drag certain Chinese elements to itself. It’s not necessary to extrapolate, but come to similar views. She is doing it now, but VPN helps get around the restrictions. In China, there are holes too, and if a person wants to get access to some Internet sites, he gets it. But there, the state gives citizens a relevant replacement for foreign resources. At the same time, almost all Russian attempts to create services similar to Western ones were a failure.

    What does the Habr audience think about a possible repetition of the Chinese scenario in Russia? Especially now, when the law "on sovereign Internet" was adopted in the first reading. Are there so many differences between us?

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