China Punishes VPN Users In Its Rural Northwest By Cutting Their Mobile Service

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China’s crackdown on VPNs, software that enables Internet users circumvent the country’s web censorship, continues unabated after the New York Times reported that VPN users in one part of the country had their mobile service cut entirely.

A number of residents of Xinjiang — a province in the northwest of China that is home to a large number ethnic minority groups, including Uighurs — told the Times that their telecom operator had disabled their service, forcing them to contact the police to reconnect their account. One user was told that he’d be without service for three days.

Their offense, it seems, was to use a VPN service or an overseas messaging app.

From the Times report:

“Due to police notice, we will shut down your cellphone number within the next two hours in accordance with the law,” read a text message received by one of the people, who lives in the regional capital of Urumqi. “If you have any questions, please consult the cyberpolice affiliated with the police station in your vicinity as soon as possible.”

The person said that when she called the police, she was told that the service suspensions were aimed at people who had not linked their identification to their account; used virtual private networks, or V.P.N.s, to evade China’s system of Internet filters, known as the Great Firewall; or downloaded foreign messaging software, like WhatsApp or Telegram.

Xinjiang has been a target of Internet crackdowns in the past, rioting from Uighur in 2009 saw the region’s access to the Internet closed for nearly six months, and there are plenty of question marks this time around. For one, it isn’t clear how many of the region’s 20 million population has been affected — the Times reports queues of over 20 for reconnection at one police station — and whether this kind of clampdown might be extended to other parts of China in the future.

You’d assume the answer to the latter question is no, since cutting users off would incite unrest in many parts of the country, but Xinjiang has a reputation as a testbed and officials could justify the move in the name of upholding its new, stringent regulations that force phone owners to register their ID.

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