China is showing no sign of letting up on internet users who seek to hurdle its censorship system after it began imposing new restrictions on a popular censorship avoidance service in the country.
Astrill, a paid-for VPN service that allows customers to access blocked sites and services from inside China on smartphones or desktop machines, warned users of its iOS app today that “increased censorship” is impinging on its functionality on iPhones and iPads. The company, which is registered in the Seychelles, is particularly popular with expats and businesses inside China.
In its message to iOS users, Astrill said it is working on developing a new app for Apple’s upcoming iOS 9 mobile software which should “overcome this [latest] blockage.”
The company did not respond to our request for comment, but the issue does not appear to be affecting Astrill’s other services. Other services do not appear to be affected by these issues — ExpressVPN confirmed to TechCrunch that its service is working unaffected.
This is far from the first time that Astrill or other VPN services have come under pressure from the Chinese government. Just last week, a number of its services were restricted by Beijing on account of World War 2 celebrations that were taking place. Rather simply stamping out popular VPN services, China’s censorship operations went a step further than usual as a number of independent software developers were forced to remove apps hosted on GitHub following requests from police. GitHub, which weathered a wave of offenses thought to be from China this summer, was also hit with a DDoS attack around the WW2 anniversary.
Last week’s clamp down mirrored another from earlier this year. In January, Chinese media reported that the ‘Great Firewall’ — China’s internet censorship system — had been “upgraded for cyberspace sovereignty.” Following that, a number of VPN services reported lengthy outages and confirmed that they had been on the receiving end of particularly sophisticated attacks that were thought to be from authorities in China.
The prospects aren’t good for internet freedom in China. With Gmail suffering its most serious blockage since Google relocated its China services to Hong Kong, police now embedded inside top internet companies, and a sophisticated, new weapon to take down websites at the government’s disposal, pundits believe that things will only get worse.
“I think that the crackdown on information control has really accelerated since [President] Xi Jinping took power [in November 2012],” Charlie Smith, a pseudonymous co-founder of anti-censorship organization Great Fire — itself a target of the Chinese government — told TechCrunch.
“There have always been crackdowns on circumvention tools but I think it is clear that today the authorities are moving against all of them. No circumvention tool is safe,” Smith added.
Beyond just keeping internet users out of international websites and places of information, Smith believes that China’s continued censorship efforts are frustrating businesses based in the country, too.
“Not only will normal netizens bear the brunt of this crackdown, but many businesses will experience major internet disruptions as well. Businesses need to signal their displeasure in being unable to access foreign websites and information critical to their operations. The authorities are more likely to listen if they know that investment dollars are at stake,” the GreatFire founder cautioned.
China is, of course, a land of opportunity for many firms — including internet companies that have made compromises — so it remains to be seen exactly how bad things would need to get for potential deals to go elsewhere and established organizations to leave the country altogether.