A man in southern China was sentenced to 5½ years in prison for selling a virtual private network to bypass internet censorship, amid Beijing’s crackdown to enforce its infamous “Great Firewall”.
Wu Xiangyang, from the Guangxi autonomous region, was also fined 500,000 yuan (US$76,000) in Pingnan county for not holding the proper licence for his VPN business, according to a report on Wednesday in the Procuratorate Daily, the gazette for China’s highest prosecution and inspection agency.
He was suspected of running the VPN service – which reroutes internet traffic to other locations – from 2013 to June this year, providing software and modified routers to help people access foreign websites restricted in China, the report said.
In that time, Wu’s business brought in 792,638 yuan in revenue and around 500,000 yuan in “illegal” profits, it said.
His VPN was marketed on its own website, popular shopping site Taobao and on social media sites as a service that could access sites restricted on the mainland such as Facebook, Google and Gmail. The website has since been taken down. Taobao is owned by Alibaba, which also owns the South China Morning Post.
The company claimed on Twitter in March last year to have 8,000 foreigners and 5,000 businesses using its VPN services to browse websites blocked in China.
Wu’s sentencing comes after Beijing announced a 14-month “clean-up” campaign in January to clamp down on unauthorised tools used to circumvent internet censorship.
VPNs are a popular way of accessing sites such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and foreign news websites which might carry content that is critical of the ruling Communist Party and cannot be accessed on the mainland.
Another man, Deng Jiewei, was sentenced to nine months in jail in March for selling unauthorised VPNs on his website.
It is not illegal to sell VPN software in China, but such businesses are required to register with the authorities. Users of these circumvention tools may also be targeted, with Chongqing’s government issuing regulations earlier this year that would see individuals fined up to 15,000 yuan for using “illegal channels” to bypass the Great Firewall.
China’s internet clampdown has had a chilling effect on VPN users, and led domestic providers such as GreenVPN and Haibei VPN to suspend operations earlier this year.