Censorship circumvention tools designed to bypass Internet restrictions are again under attack in China as software meant to let users around the nation’s so-called Great Firewall are experiencing a sudden surge in service interruptions and shutdowns.
At least one commercial VPN provider has told customers in China this week to expect connectivity issues in the coming days, and two independent developers responsible for anti-censorship tools have pulled the plug on their respective projects in light of apparent government coercion. Now ahead of a massive military parade scheduled for next month in the Chinese capital, officials appear to be narrowing their sights on the few options left for citizens seeking escape from a state-controlled Web where the most popular sites—and access to the outside world—are prohibited by law.
Astrill, a Seychelles-based company that leases access to Virtual Private Networks, or VPNs, notified clients Wednesday that iPhone and iPad users in China will likely encounter service issues in the run-up to a parade scheduled for September 6 to commemorate the anniversary of the end of World War II.
“Due to upcoming Beijing’s military parade next week, China is cracking down on IPSec VPNs using GFW auto-learning technique,” Astrill alerted customers, the South China Morning Post reported Wednesday.
VPNs enable users to bypass geographic-based censorship by routing Internet traffic through computers dispersed around the world. An individual in Beijing might connect to a VPN in Canada so they can access content that is blocked within their own country without traveling abroad, or a Netflix user one one side of the globe may surf as though they’re somewhere else in order to watch programing that’s only available in certain parts of the planet.
“People use circumvention tools for any number of reasons. Some people use them to bypass firewalls and get to medical content, to religious or culturally-significant writing that they can’t access any other way. Others use it to evade surveillance or protect their privacy from ads,” Griffin Boyce, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and the lead developer on circumvention tools Satori and Cupcake, told the Washington Times on Wednesday.
Zhou Jing, an Astrill customer in Beijing, told the SCMP that she started having trouble browsing the Web on Tuesday evening.
“It’s very upsetting because I find myself disconnected from the outside world, no Gmail and no Facebook,” she said.
Astrill’s warning comes days after the developer of shadowsocks, an open source tool that similarly allows users to circumvent geographic-based censorship, pulled their own project from GitHub, a popular online code repository.
“Two days ago the police came to me and wanted me to stop working on this. Today they asked me to delete all the code from GitHub,” the developer, “clowwind,” claimed in a message posted over the weekend. “I have no choice but to obey. I hope one day I’ll live in a country where I have freedom to write any code I like without fearing.” The message has since been deleted and replaced with the phrase “removed according to regulations,” not unlike censorship notices seen on previous sites targeted by Beijing, China Digital Times reported.
The administrators of GreatFire, a nonprofit that monitors the Chinese government’s censorship efforts, said in a blog post that the actions involved shadowsocks “makes it clear that the Cyberspace Administration of China is working closely with state security and local police to further Xi Jinping’s crackdown on internet freedom in China.”
On Tuesday, GoAgent, another circumvention tool, disappeared from Github as well. In an ominous farewell message, its developer wrote that “everything that has a beginning has an end” before similarly taking their code off the site.
“It’s not surprising that the GoAgent developers were pressed into removing it from GitHub, given how effective it is at bypassing the Great Firewall,” explained Mr. Boyce, who also volunteers with the Tor Project, the nonprofit group behind a popular Web browser that routes traffic to similarly obfuscate digital trails.
“China spends billions of dollars to restrict free speech online and employs tens of thousands of people to aid in finding websites that may be ‘undesirable’ for political or religious reasons,” he added, noting that many common words such as “carrot” and “study” have been briefly blocked at times said they were being used as euphemisms.
GitHub was momentarily knocked offline Tuesday due to an apparent distributed denial-of-service, or DDoS attack, in which a server is flooded with illegitimate Web traffic and made unavailable. Security researchers have previously blamed a similar assault suffered by GitHub in March to Chinese actors.
Astrill did not immediately respond to The Washington Times’ request for comment, and a representative for GitHub declined Wednesday to provide specifics on this week’s attack.