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China cracking down on use of VPNs, web users fear enhanced 'Great Firewall'

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BEIJING Enterprising Internet users in China fear the tools they use to tunnel through the country's "Great Firewall" may soon disappear, as Beijing tightens its grip on the web.

Tens of millions of people are estimated to use virtual private networks (VPNs) to bypass Chinese Internet restrictions - getting access to blocked websites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Beijing has for years turned a blind eye to these holes in its Great Firewall, but recent events suggest the virtual tunnels may soon be bricked up.

In January, China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) announced it would be banning the use of unlicensed providers of the services.

In the months since the rule's announcement, rumours have swirled that a crackdown was coming, but there was little clarity on what exactly the rule meant and how, or even if, it would be implemented.

In the past few weeks, however, omens of significant tightening seem to be everywhere.

Several luxury hotels in Beijing have said they will stop using the tools, which once provided unfiltered Internet as a convenience to their customers.

On Thursday, a cloud service provider in Beijing notified users that it would practise shutting down and reporting VPN providers on the orders of Beijing's Public Security Bureau.

Tech giants Apple and Amazon, too, have moved to limit their customers' access to the tools in China in what has been seen as a voluntary move to get ahead of the impending crackdown.

Yesterday, Apple said it was removing a number of the programs from its app store, while Amazon's Chinese partner said that customers would no longer be allowed to use "illegal" VPNs on its cloud service.

"There have been many rounds of government murmurings about VPN crackdowns, and foreign and Chinese businesses had grown used to only minor or temporary restrictions," said Mr Graham Webster, a senior researcher scholar at Yale Law School. "But this time appears different." - AFP

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