A Chinese software developer has received a suspended prison sentence for selling software that allowed internet users to dodge the Chinese government’s intensifying efforts to control their online activities.
According to a court report published Tuesday, the man, surnamed Dai, was given a three-year suspended sentence and fined around $1,400 this week after being found guilty of operating a website offering virtual private network (VPN) services to hundreds of Chinese users between April 2016 and October 2017.
This is the first time such a case has been brought in Shanghai, the court said. Such prosecutions are rare nationwide, but have stepped up in the wake of a crackdown on VPN use launched last year. In September 2017, another developer in southern Guangdong province was sentenced to nine months in prison for the same crime.
VPN services remain one of the most effective means of getting around the Great Firewall, China’s vast online censorship apparatus.
In the West, VPNs are mainly used for connecting to company intranets, strengthening online privacy and getting around regional blocks on services such as Netflix or the BBC iPlayer. But they can also skirt the Great Firewall because they mask internet traffic, which prevents the censorship apparatus from analyzing the traffic and blocking access to banned websites.
China launched a crackdown on unauthorized VPN services in 2017, and their use was officially banned at the end of March this year.
Many popular VPN companies based overseas said users in China have been able to continue using their tools. Their primary market, though, is foreigners living in the country, who are less likely to face repercussions for using banned services and have the foreign credit cards needed to pay for them.
Chinese authorities have been gradually stamping out VPN services run from inside the country since the March ban kicked in. VPN apps have also been removed from popular online marketplaces, including Apple’s iTunes store.
While a complete VPN block is possible – and has been implemented during certain sensitive periods – the government usually avoids this as it would cause significant disruption to businesses and diplomatic missions, which rely on VPNs for secure communications.
According to the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, VPN services are permitted in China, but must not be “established or leased without the approval of the telecommunications authorities.”
By encouraging companies to switch to using approved VPN services – which will continue to block websites deemed off limits by the Great Firewall – Chinese censors may be preparing for a time when they can block all other providers. The means by which they could do this are unclear, and big companies and diplomatic missions may be particularly uncomfortable using Chinese-government-approved VPNs for security reasons.
CNN’s Serenitie Wang contributed reporting from Beijing.