In a show of force, the Chinese government has sentenced a man in southern China, named Wu Xiangyang, for 5 years in prison for selling to customers a virtual private network (VPN) to bypass Beijing’s internet censorship, amid the crackdown to enforce its infamous “Great Firewall.”
Mr Wu’s VPN was marketed on its own website, on popular shopping sites such as Taobao and on several Chinese social media sites as a service that could access sites which are normally restricted on the mainland such as Facebook, Google and Gmail.
On Twitter, the man claimed to have helped some 8,000 foreigners and more than 5,000 businesses by using its VPN services to browse websites which are blocked in China.
Mr William Nee, a researcher at Amnesty International in Hong Kong, stated: “Anonymizers such as VPNs are a key enabler of human rights online.”
“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.”
Authorities also fined him 500,000 yuan (US$76,000) as his business did not hold the proper license for advertising and running his VPN business. Normally it is not necessarily illegal to run a VPN business in China, but it needs to be registered so that Chinese authorities can control which sites it accesses.
In China, most mainstream US websites such as Google, Youtube, Facebook and Yahoo are blocked. The Chinese authorities say they simply want to control what people can read but at the same time do allow the Chinese equivalent websites to operate. The largest search engine in China, for example, is Baidu.