Man Sentenced to 5 Years in Prison for Running VPN Service

Virtual Private Network (VPN) services are used by many privacy minded users. As one man found out recently, there are certainly risks associated with running one.

Wu Xiangyang who ran a Chinese based VPN service has reportedly received not only a prison sentence of 5 years, but was also fined 500,000 yuan (or about $97,000 Canadian dollars) for all the profits earned by the company since 2013. The report comes from The Guardian which also notes the following:

“Anonymizers such as VPNs are a key enabler of human rights online,” said William Nee, a researcher at Amnesty International in Hong Kong. “The fact that this man got such a long sentence for selling VPNs is a very worrying sign, and it reflects how the Chinese government is determined to punish those that try to jump over the Great Firewall and access information that isn’t subjected to the world’s most intense censorship regime”.

Wu’s lengthy sentence represents a dramatic escalation in the government’s fight to control information flows into the country. China plans to ban all VPNs starting in early 2018 unless they are registered with the authorities, defeating the purpose of an anonymous tool designed to circumvent the government.

Another man was jailed for nine months in September for selling VPNs, and it is unclear why Wu received a significantly longer sentence. Officials also detained a man for three days for setting up a VPN so he could visit blocked websites.

The crackdown comes towards the end of a 14-month campaign or “cleanup” of internet services announced in January, part of President Xi Jinping’s push for so-called “internet sovereignty”.

In a nutshell, VPN services allow users to conceal their digital identity. If a user accesses a website, the IP address that the site sees will be the IP address to the VPN service. VPN services also enable users to access content blocked in their country. This includes content that is geoblocked in their country and content governments or other interests see fit to block.

In recent years, VPNs have been coming under gradually increased scrutiny. Governments have put pressure on VPN services in the past to track down hackers in the last several years. An example of this is when HideMyAss turned over activity logs of a Lulzsec member to the FBI in 2011. That action caused the downfall of the hacking group.

There has also been tension between Netflix and VPN services. Netflix is often pressured by other major corporate interests to limit its libraries to specific geographical regions. The issue cropped up in 2015 when Netflix had to go on record to say that the rumours of them cracking down VPNs was exaggerated and that they always have had a policy of blocking VPN services.

As for Xiangyang, running a VPN service in China comes with risks. This is because the Chinese government has strict regulations on the Internet. The “Great Firewall of China” is well documented over the years.

What this means for other VPN services running in the country remains unclear.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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