The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) calls on the Government of China to clarify the usage of privately-run VPNs (Virtual Private Network) in China. The IFJ also calls on the Government of China to end its attempt to control and stifle the free flow of information in the online space.On July 25, the chief engineer of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, during a press conference, avoided answering any questions about rumours that authorities had directed telecommunication firms to shut down unregistered VPN service providers by February 1, 2018. Rumours have been rife in recent weeks, that the three largest telecommunications firms in China, China Mobile, China Unicorn and China Telecom, will be forced to shut down unregistered VPNs by authorities.China had started increasing its attempts to control access to information online and the rights of the people online in February 2017. The China National Internet Information Office and other departments, including the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology announced, at that time, that they would conduct a public consultation to review all internet service providers, including VPNs. At the same time, the Community Party of China issued new guidelines to all officials on how to use social media, which explicitly said that no ‘negative energy’ should be dispersed online.Since then, a number of netizens have complained that they continue to have difficulties accessing foreign websites via VPNs in China. In late July, several reports surfaced on people in China having issues accessing Whatsapp via VPNs. This included several China Mobile customers, who complained about their access to foreign websites, after they had purchased pre-paid smart phone cards in Hong Kong.According to Voice of America, a former journalism professor said that the was concerned that VPN blocking would have serious impacts on the intellectual and creative freedom of people in China. While, Initium Media reported that a number of netizens in Shenzhen were interrogated by police and accused of using VPNs to access foreign websites. Police even demanded that they signed statements declaring they would stop using VPNs.The President of China, Xi Jinping, has expressed concern for internet usage in China, under the guise of ‘cyberspace sovereignty’ to validate moves by his government to control the online space.
The IFJ Asia Pacific Office said: “The blocking and limiting of access to information online will only work to weaken freedom and expression and free speech in China. The government continues to strengthen its control of the online space in China through repressive and ambigious legislation and government orders. Access to information and the internet will only work to strengthen China and its role in the world, through international linkages, information sharing and networks.”We urge international organisations, intellectuals and the commercial sector to demand the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology to clarify the usage of VPNs in China and provide details on any changes to the current situation.
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