A new national security law passed by the Chinese Communist Party made several Western VPN (virtual private network) providers shut down their servers in Hong Kong.
China’s vision of the internet is very different from other countries. For starters, despite having the world’s largest population and the world’s most internet users, it has no law protecting online privacy. Information is also regulated and censored. The so-called “Great Firewall of China” restricts or outright blocks international sources of information — everything is filtered, and only approved information may pass. Understandably, people wanting to truly access the internet have been looking for alternatives.
This isn’t only restricted to China — online privacy has become a growing concern for the entire world. We’ve previously talked about virtual private network (VPN) use has increased around 25% during the quarantine as more people sought to protect their data. It’s not clear right now how much of that growth will remain stable over time; after all month-long free VPN trials are enticing, but many of them just don’t get extended.
But one thing such statistics make clear is that most people value the ability to keep our identity and conversations to ourselves, and net neutrality (ensuring that providers are treating all users equally). Although individual governments haven’t always been on board with these concepts, they have even been endorsed by the United Nations and the internet has essentially become a human right.
But not in China. A law recently passed in China throws that idea out entirely. Under the new provisions, the state can charge anyone found guilty of “secession or subversion” to life in prison. Authorities also gain the power to search electronic devices of certain individuals for evidence of this behavior — sometimes without a warrant. The law is very vague and also applies to acts carried out over the internet, so everything from social media to personal blogs is subjected.
In the long run, it offers a chilling vision of what the internet might become. In the short run, it has extreme consequences for Hong Kong. Its ratification is a significant development for the Hong Kong area, which was transferred from Britain to China in 1997. The new Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China was given assurances that it will retain many of its freedoms — chiefly, freedom of speech — which were not extended to the rest of the country.
Even before the pandemic, the internet was a social and cultural lifeline for people around the world. Many of us are now also using it for work or education. You wouldn’t be wrong to call it a big part of our current lives.
Companies whose whole business model revolves around them protecting users’ internet privacy are obviously at odds with such a law. Several VPN companies based in the US and Canada have thus shut down their servers in Hong Kong, CNBC reported earlier today. This is meant to prevent the Chinese government from forcibly searching these servers for data on user identity and activity.
Censorship and information control aren’t new developments for the world’s second-largest economy, but Hong Kong has officially been exempt under the “one country, two systems” ethos. That, however, seems to be coming to an end.
It’s the most pressing threat to internet freedom the world has seen so far .Such a change might have ramifications for other areas and governments of the world. As someone who lives and spends quite a lot of time online, that’s not a thrilling prospect.
In the meantime, companies like Facebook and Google said they would stop processing data requests from the Chinese government until they assess the details of the new law and consult with human rights experts.