NEW YORK—China’s move to require pre-authorization of virtual private networks (VPNs) sales represents another step toward the regime’s attempts to obtain complete control over access to information in China, PEN America said in a statement today.

On Sunday, January 22, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) announced a set of new rules with the goal of ending “unauthorized internet connections.” The new rules, which are in immediate effect, include the requirement that all VPN providers be pre-approved by the Ministry. VPNs, which allow users to access the internet through a private network, are commonly used in China to circumvent some aspects of the country’s strict internet control, allowing users to access information that would be blocked by censors. The new MIIT rules indicate “serious consequences” for unauthorized VPN providers—including revoking their business licenses—though the rules are silent as to what penalties may befall users of VPNs from such providers. 

The announcement of the new restrictions on VPNs comes in the wake of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s keynote address this weekend at the World Economic Forum’s (Davos’s) annual meeting. In his speech, President Xi argued for “global connectivity” and lauded the benefits of globalization. His comments stand in stark contrast to the reality of China’s vast censorship apparatus and Xi’s ongoing crackdown on free expression in the country.

“Virtual private networks are in many ways the last lifeline to a free internet in China,” said Katherine Glenn Bass, PEN America’s Director of Free Expression Research and Policy. “These new rules, which constrain their availability, will make it even harder for Chinese citizens to access independent news sources or any other source of information that is not Party-controlled.”  

PEN America, the free expression and literature advocacy group, has long documented censorship trends in China. PEN America’s previous work on the subject includes its September 2016 report “Darkened Screen,” on the constraints and censorship faced by foreign journalists in China, and its May 2015 report “Censorship and Conscience,” on the censorship of Chinese-language translations of international literature.

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PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

* On 1/25/2017 this statement was edited to better identify and acknowledge the MIIT Rules’ focus on VPN providers.

CONTACT
Sarah Edkins, Deputy Director for Communications: sedkins@pen.org, +1646.779.4830