A man has been arrested in China for selling VPN services that allow Chinese residents to bypass the Great Firewall. The Chinese graduate student has confessed and is awaiting sentencing. He allegedly made $1.6 million form selling VPN services since he started the business in 2016.
The Present Case
A 29-year-old graduate student was arrested in China’s Jianshu province in December 2019 for selling “illegal” VPN services. A VPN service is considered “illegal” in China if is offered without approval from appropriate authorities.
It is also illegal to provide VPN services that bypass China’s Great Firewall. This allows local Chinese internet users to gain access to the global internet, which is not allowed in China.
The man, known just by the pseudonym Gao, allegedly confessed to having provided a VPN service deemed “illegal” by Chinese authorities. However, he claims that his customers were not using the VPN service for illegal activities. “People use it for ordinary things, to watch videos and read the news,” Gao said in his defense.
Gao has not yet been sentenced. However, he is likely to face a long jail sentence as well as a hefty monetary fine. The sentence is likely to be severe because he allegedly earned more than 11 million Yuan since 2016. This translates to approximately US $1.6 million.
What is the Great Firewall of China?
The term the “Great Firewall of China” was apparently first coined in a Wired magazine article in 1997. It is used to refer to China’s extensive online censorship system. This system blocks a range of foreign websites and slows down internet traffic as it crosses into China.
It is believed that China’s Great Firewall was not the brainchild of a single person. However, frustrated internet users in China put the blame on Fang Binxing for its existence. Binxing is a former Principal of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications and has been dubbed the “Father of the Great Firewall”.
The number of websites blocked in China are in the tens of thousands. An article by Xinmei Shen on Abacus states: “Blacklisted websites include social networks like Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp; news outlets like Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times; and popular collaboration tools such as Dropbox and Google Drive (or anything else on Google).”
Other Chinese VPN Service Distributor Arrests
Gao’s arrest is not the first in China for offering unauthorized VPN Services, but it is most likely the biggest. Arrests for distributing VPNs became prevalent in 2017 after China announced a ban on all commercial VPNs that did not have government authorization.
Furthermore, it appears that China is mainly targeting individuals distributing VPNs, rather than those using them. That said, a man was fined $145 in January 2019 for accessing foreign, blocked websites.
Over the years, there have been numerous reports of VPN distributors being arrested. Just last week a man was arrested in Shenzhen province for the same offence as Gao’s. In 2019 alone, a man was arrested in October in Hangzhou. Another man named Li was arrested in December for his involvement in an unauthorized commercial VPN company. Furthermore, a man was jailed in May 2019 for selling access to a video app with capabilities to bypass the Great Firewall.