A man has been sentenced to nine months in jail in China for selling virtual private networks to circumvent the country’s notorious internet censorship, amid Beijing’s tightening crackdown on ways to get round its “Great Firewall”.
Deng Jiewei, a 26-year-old from Dongguan in Guangdong province, was convicted of “providing software and tools for invading and illegally controlling the computer information system”, according to court documents posted on a website run by China’s Supreme Court.
Deng had run a small website since October 2015 that sold two pieces of VPN software.
Deng was first held in August last year and he and a partner made nearly 14,000 yuan (US$2,100) selling the software, which allowed users to “visit foreign websites that could not be accessed by a mainland IP address”, the judgement said.
Deng was sentenced in March, but the online court documents were only noticed later and publicised by social media users on Sunday.
Posts about Deng’s case have been shared by thousands on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, drawing anger as well as concerns about the treatment of VPN users.
Many wondered why VPN services were considered as “invading and illegally controlling” a computer system, while others worried if VPN users might also be jailed in the future.
“If selling a VPN means a conviction for ‘providing software and tools for invading and illegally controlling the computer information system”, then everyone here who uses a VPN to evade the Great Firewall can also be convicted of illegally invading or illegally controlling the computer information system, right?” one of the most liked comments on Weibo said.
VPN users in some parts of China already face consequences from the local authorities.
Internet users accessing banned foreign sites using a VPN in Chongqing get a warning message appear on their computer or device to disconnect. People in the city who generate profits of more than 5,000 yuan using VPNs can be fined up to 15,000 yuan after the restrictions were announced in March.
VPNs are a popular way to skirt the Great Firewall by connecting to the internet outside mainland China. They allows users to access blocked sites with information that may be critical of the Communist Party, such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and foreign news sites.
The authorities say the approved VPN networks of multinationals will not be affected.
The authorities announced a 14-month campaign to crack down on unauthorised VPN services in January. Some domestic VPN providers, such as GreenVPN, have been shut down.
Bloomberg reported in July that the state-run telecoms firms China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom had been ordered to stop allowing the use of VPNs by February next year, but the Ministry of Industry and Information later denied the report.
Apple removed VPN apps from its App Store in China later the same month.
China’s popular e-commerce platform Taobao, owned by Alibaba which also owns the South China Morning Post, was reprimanded last month by the Zhejiang provincial branch of the country’s top cyber regulator for allowing vendors to sell VPNs on the platform. It was ordered to remove the services.