A man in China has been sentenced to five and a half years in jail for selling software that circumvented the country’s pervasive internet censorship controls, a sign authorities are stepping up a campaign meant to “clean up” the internet.
Wu Xiangyang was also fined 500,000 yuan (£56,800), an amount equal to his profits since starting the service in 2013, according to a report in the newspaper of China’s national prosecutor’s office. Wu ran a virtual private network (VPN), a tool that allows unfettered access to websites normally blocked by China’s massive censorship network.
The Great Firewall, as the censorship apparatus is commonly known, means people in China are banned from visiting thousands of websites, including Google, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram.
Wu ran his VPN service from 2013 until June this year and claimed to serve 8,000 foreign clients and 5,000 businesses.
“Anonymizers such as VPNs are a key enabler of human rights online,” said William Nee, a researcher at Amnesty International in Hong Kong. “The fact that this man got such a long sentence for selling VPNs is a very worrying sign, and it reflects how the Chinese government is determined to punish those that try to jump over the Great Firewall and access information that isn’t subjected to the world’s most intense censorship regime”.
Wu’s lengthy sentence represents a dramatic escalation in the government’s fight to control information flows into the country. China plans to ban all VPNs starting in early 2018 unless they are registered with the authorities, defeating the purpose of an anonymous tool designed to circumvent the government.
Another man was jailed for nine months in September for selling VPNs, and it is unclear why Wu received a significantly longer sentence. Officials also detained a man for three days for setting up a VPN so he could visit blocked websites.
The crackdown comes towards the end of a 14-month campaign or “cleanup” of internet services announced in January, part of President Xi Jinping’s push for so-called “internet sovereignty”.
Foreign tech companies have also restricted access to VPNs in China. In July, Apple said it would remove VPN software from its App Store in response to requests from the Chinese government.
By Benjamin Haas