On a recent trip to China, the Great Wall took my breath away. And then the Great Firewall took my internet away.
The most extensive surveillance system and censorship tool in the world, China's Great Firewall blocks everything from popular social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, to search engines like Google to respected news sites like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and BBC.com. But just as the Mongols, Turks and Manchus once breached the Great Wall, I was able to tunnel under the Great Firewall with one simple tool — a VPN.
A VPN is a virtual private network. Available free or for a monthly cost (generally $5-$10), the network service can elude the constrictions of the Great Firewall by changing the IP address on your computer, laptop or mobile device into one of many offered by your VPN provider. So when you're tapping away at your laptop in a hotel room in China, your VPN can make it look like you're in Japan or Hong Kong, where there is unrestricted internet access. In addition, once you activate a VPN, you're connected to one of its servers via a dedicated, encrypted link, ensuring all of the data flowing back and forth between your device and the VPN server is private.
Internet Censorship Around the World
VPNs are popular among international businesspeople and travelers — gotta get that mountaintop selfie posted on Facebook, stat! But they're also popular among citizens living in countries where the internet is restricted. And internet censorship occurs in numerous countries around the globe. A 2015 Freedom House study looked at 88 percent of the world's internet users and found one-third faced heavy censorship, while nearly one-quarter had only partial internet freedom. China topped the list of most-restrictive governments, followed by Syria, Iran, Ethiopia, Cuba, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia.
The research company Global Web Index found about 25 percent of internet users worldwide access the net via a VPN. But in restrictive countries such as Turkey and Thailand, the percentage rises to 35 to 40, with users largely trying to access banned or restricted content. In free locales such as Western Europe, in contrast, VPN usage dips to 15 percent; there, people use the servers mainly to ensure privacy. While VPNs are often banned in countries with restrictive internet service, citizens are generally not fined or jailed for using them.
As the world's largest country, China makes an interesting VPN study. Its Great Firewall, which China calls the "Golden Shield," began operating in 1996, shortly after the internet's debut there. Its purpose then and now is to block all content the Chinese government deems undesirable, along with all technologies designed to circumvent it. It does so via "a massive network of Chinese web, email and content filters, network firewalls and other equipment, which inspects internet traffic entering and exiting China," says Dave Schroeder, an information technology strategist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The Chinese government also limits internet access points (central routing systems which all outside internet traffic must pass through before diverting to individual IP addresses) to a mere three. These access points, Schroeder says, act as "virtual choke points" that allow easy snooping into the content entering and leaving the country. Indeed, China has 30,000 to 50,000 cyber cops monitoring all internet traffic.
Why China Allows VPNs
Yet despite the Great Firewall's sophistication — it's supposedly the best such system in the world — VPNs regularly get around it. This is partly because VPN computer geeks are constantly working to outfox the system (although their Great Firewall counterparts are continually trying to strengthen the wall as well), and partly because Chinese officials accept the fact that some VPN usage is necessary to be a global citizen. And the country can always step in if necessary, says Schroeder. For example, in 2008 officials shut down access to YouTube during Tibetan riots.
"Regional crackdowns are common when the Chinese government perceives any kind of social unrest," says Schroeder. Indeed, nearly all the major VPNs are blocked in the Muslim-majority province of Xinjiang, the Washington Post reported.
Another reason Chinese officials don't lose sleep over VPNs is the perhaps-startling fact that the vast majority of its 700 million citizen internet users — who comprise one-quarter of all internet users in the world — are content surfing a censored web. That may be partly because China has created its own social media sites, and they're wildly popular. More than 90 percent of Chinese internet users are frequently on social media, versus 67 percent in the U.S. They use sites like Tencent QQ and WeChat for instant messaging and playing games and Weibo, a sort of combination of Twitter and Facebook, for posting pictures and comments.
Schroeder predicts VPNs will be around for the foreseeable future as China, for one, isn't giving any indications it will loosen its grip on internet. So if you're planning to travel to a foreign country for business or pleasure, it may be wise to add "VPN" to your packing list.