Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are becoming an increasingly essential part of Chinese society. They provide a safe and encrypted connection over the internet. Put simply, VPNs allow businesses and citizens to anonymously access content which would otherwise be restricted. Users can be secure in the knowledge that no-one can intercept their data or follow their activity.
Blocking VPN usage to the Chinese people could be seen as a clear violation of the right to factual information. As of 2016, over a quarter of the world’s internet users were located behind ‘The Great Firewall’. With 171 of the world’s 1000 most popular websites blocked, what exactly are the Chinese government afraid of? Would VPN providers be wrong in continuing to provide this service despite its illegality?
No Access, No Problems
The proponents will argue many reasons as to why a censored internet is necessary for a harmonised society. For one, it protects young and vulnerable citizens from malicious acts disseminated across the web, otherwise available at the click of a button. Furthermore, it provides protection against illegal activities such as identity theft because anti-phishing software, a form of internet censorship, can alert the user to malicious software trying to obtain personal information. The Chinese government has pledged to ‘strengthen cyberspace internet security management’ through its crackdown on VPNs.
As the new legislation has become active with immediate effect, VPN providers have found themselves in a position where the law is forcing their hand. Kantian ethical theory suggests that the average VPN provider should act in agreement with the moral rule; in this case, the legal ruling. Breaking the law, regardless of the outcome of that action, would be universally immoral for all VPN providers.
Providers are also faced with the prospect of compromising national security should they choose to ignore the bans. As they are offering a pathway through the Great Firewall of China, they put at risk sensitive information which can be leaked from within China to offshore areas. By extension, bypassing government proposals makes it impossible to completely prevent hackers or terrorists from accessing information that could put the entire country at risk. Does the unrestricted access to the few outweigh the potential security risk for the many?
It is obvious that the greatest benefactor of the firewall is the Chinese government. Another moral theory, ethical egoism, argues that an action can be justified as morally correct if it benefits oneself, and disregards ‘the greater good’. In this case, the government acting in its own self-interest is just. Egoism is one aspect of consequentialism, by which all actions are judged solely on the resulting consequences.
In contrast, utilitarianism, proposes that an act is ethically decent if it provides happiness for the greatest number. Restricting access to some of the largest global internet sites from within China has created opportunities for Chinese companies to develop their own versions of these popular websites; from an economic standpoint, this provides jobs and keeps profits within the country boosting the Chinese economy. This further justifies the obedience of VPN providers to the government.
Another of Kant’s theories, that of the categorical imperative, suggests that one should only act in a way that would be universally acceptable, i.e. if everybody was to provide a VPN service, would it still be acceptable? VPNs enable the user to hide their IP address and by extension, their location and identity. In essence, it provides an ‘online disguise’. And it is this ability which raises the potential security risks as citizens inevitably begin to use these disguises for conducting illegal activities.
Censorship is the enemy of creativity
For the most part, domestic use of VPNs allows Chinese citizens to view information that would otherwise be restricted under the censorship laws. This is information readily available to the rest of the free world and is arguably only damaging to the Government’s reputation and not the country’s Internet security. It could therefore be argued that in continuing to provide VPN services one would simply be facilitating freedom of information. With the likes of Twitter and Facebook also being censored in China, one could also argue that freedom of speech and expression would be aided, two concepts that many would assert underpin a free society. With an upcoming Chinese Government reshuffle, it begs the question; what is this move an attempt to crackdown on? Security? Or opposition?
Though the official reasons will be that of ‘safety’ and ‘security’, the underlying motivation for the censorship is to block any information deemed inimical to the Communist Party’s narrative of perfection and unity. Information that is deemed critical to the Chinese government, such as China’s horrific and ongoing actions in Tibet, as well as the famous incident at Tiananmen Square simply cannot be searched for. These examples only scratch the surface of the wealth of information that Chinese citizens (20% world’s population) do not have access to.
Utilitarianism suggests that the consequence of an action is central to its moral judgement; that is, the end goal of providing Chinese citizens with access to unrestricted and unfiltered information is the most important value, despite breaking the law to achieve this goal. The concept of ‘the end justifies the means’ rings true in this case.
Intellectualism, another form of consequentialism, dictates that the best course of action is one that best fosters and promotes knowledge. It prioritizes the knowledge gained over the means by which we attain it. As VPNs actively allow users to gain information that would otherwise be censored and restricted, intellectualism would support a decision to continue to provide VPN services.
There are a multitude of legal, registered VPN providers in China, the majority of which are affiliated with public enterprises and these allow anyone who is able to pay the large fees – mainly banks and law firms – to circumvent the Great Firewall legally. Why should unrestricted secure internet access be reserved for the elite who can afford it?
Regardless of any laws, with the sheer numbers of internet users in China, even the most sophisticated internet surveillance system would struggle to keep tabs on everything. Domestic users will largely remain unaffected as there will always be new VPNs from international sources available. As long as there is a demand from the Chinese people for VPNs, they will be provided. VPN providers located internationally may seize the opportunity to act on what they consider moral rightness. They may see such laws as the early steps of China becoming more like North Korea. Is this delving further into the realms of “big brother” and Government control of citizens’ lives? Will stopping the 3% of citizens that use VPNs really enable increased Internet security and should people be allowed to make their own decision on the risks they take online?
It’s perhaps ironic that a Chinese citizen may not even be allowed access to this very article. Is this delving further into the realms of ‘big brother’ and government control of citizens’ lives? Will stopping the 3% of citizens that use VPNs really enable increased internet security? Or is legislation such as this imperative to the security of people’s lives in the ever-advancing technological world that we live in?
Group 68: Kristopher Cole, Andrew Biddulph, Mark Kendall, Peter Neal