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China has constructed the world's most sophisticated system of Internet content control. It's been dubbed not the Great Wall but the great firewall. Now, savvy Internet users can tunnel under that wall using tools known as virtual private networks or, as you might know them, VPNs. But as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing, China's government is now stepping up its efforts to block those VPNs.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: A software developer in southern China surnamed Xie was at his home on a recent day when he responded to a knock on the door. He opened it to find three plainclothes policemen. Xie asks that we just use his last name because he fears being arrested. At the time, Mr. Xie was selling VPN apps on Apple's China App Store. The tool helps people access internet content that's blocked in China. He says police told him...
XIE: (Through interpreter) Somebody has discovered that you're selling circumvention software. That's illegal. Then they asked me to let them inspect my computer.
KUHN: Xie says the police told him to remove his VPN from the Apple App Store. Xie didn't want to go to jail. So he complied, and the cops left. He said he could have put the VPN back later. But not long after that, Apple removed all VPNs from its China App Store. Apple says it's just complying with Chinese law. But not everyone is sympathetic.
HAROLD LI: Restrictions like these are a threat to free speech and civil liberties.
KUHN: Harold Li is vice president of ExpressVPN, a British Virgin Islands-based company.
LI: We were surprised and disappointed because we believe in the importance of VPNs, like ExpressVPN, for ensuring that there's a free and open Internet.
KUHN: Li says that for the past eight years, his company has managed to keep providing VPN services to customers in China, despite government attempts to block it. Even as the government finds new methods to block VPNs, providers find new ways to end run the blocks. And it's not clear that either side has a decisive advantage. Li describes the situation as...
LI: ...An ongoing game of cat and mouse or whack-a-mole.
KUHN: The Chinese government insists that companies in China can apply to use unrestricted connections to overseas websites. But at a recent press conference, Ministry of Industry and Information Technology official Wen Ku issued this warning.
WEN KU: (Through interpreter) We strictly forbid the transmission of harmful information or terrorist information over the internet.
KUHN: By harmful information, the government often means dissenting political views. It blocks access to overseas sites, including Google, Twitter, Facebook, The New York Times and the BBC, just to name a few. Zhou Shuguang is a citizen journalist and blogger who goes by the pen name Zuola. He believes that the Chinese government has the technical ability to seal the country's internet off from the outside world. But he says they're not prepared to go that far yet.
ZHOU SHUGUANG: (Through interpreter) Authorities are not seeking to prevent 100 percent of the people from evading censorship. They're just trying to keep things within their control.
KUHN: Zuola says that China is not going to risk crippling the internet economy with total censorship. He says China's main goal in shutting down VPNs is to shape public discourse.
ZHOU: (Through interpreter) The Chinese government has always paid a lot of attention to controlling the agenda. They just want to ensure that other topics don't interfere with the topics they're focusing on.
KUHN: He also notes that in times of emergency, China's government has the legal authority to completely shut down the country's internet. China's western region of Xinjiang did just that during ethnic rioting in 2009. But the whole country's internet has never gone black yet. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.
(SOUNDBITE OF LOW IN THE SKY'S "FAX MN")
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