According to a court report published Tuesday, the man, surnamed Dai, was given a three-year suspended sentence and fined around $1,400 this week after being found guilty of operating a website offering virtual private network (VPN) services to hundreds of Chinese users between April 2016 and October 2017.
VPN services remain one of the most effective means of getting around the Great Firewall, China’s vast online censorship apparatus.
In the West, VPNs are mainly used for connecting to company intranets, strengthening online privacy and getting around regional blocks on services such as Netflix or the BBC iPlayer. But they can also skirt the Great Firewall because they mask internet traffic, which prevents the censorship apparatus from analyzing the traffic and blocking access to banned websites.
Many popular VPN companies based overseas said users in China have been able to continue using their tools. Their primary market, though, is foreigners living in the country, who are less likely to face repercussions for using banned services and have the foreign credit cards needed to pay for them.
While a complete VPN block is possible — and has been implemented during certain sensitive periods — the government usually avoids this as it would cause significant disruption to businesses and diplomatic missions, which rely on VPNs for secure communications.
According to the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, VPN services are permitted in China, but must not be “established or leased without the approval of the telecommunications authorities.”
By encouraging companies to switch to using approved VPN services — which will continue to block websites deemed off limits by the Great Firewall — Chinese censors may be preparing for a time when they can block all other providers. The means by which they could do this are unclear, and big companies and diplomatic missions may be particularly uncomfortable using Chinese-government-approved VPNs for security reasons.