Bad news for business travellers to China: reports are emerging that the Chinese government is more actively blocking virtual private network (VPN) services, which travellers use to get past China's tough internet filtering.
The timing coincides with protests for democracy in China, being organised via an internet site banned in China. However, organisers and protesters have been overcoming the ban by using VPN services.
We've recently covered VPN services from the perspective of how to watch Australian TV such as iView while overseas, but VPNs are also heavily used by companies to secure the link between travelling employees' laptops and corporate networks.
VPNs are also useful to stop website passwords being stolen, due to a new hacking tool that makes using Wi-Fi hotspots unsafe.
Virtual Private Networks work by creating a fully encrypted link between your computer and a server elsewhere (usually in your home country), so that traffic can't be monitored and manipulated by third parties like the Chinese government.
Tech blog Engadget reported that some VPN companies had observed the Chinese government joining their paid services in order to extract the details they needed to more easily block people in China from using the service.
Bloomberg reported that a popular VPN service, WiTopia, was inundated with reports from users that the service had stopped working in China.
The article quotes Li Wufeng, chief of the Information Office Internet Affairs Bureau of China’s ruling State Council, who said there have "never been any issues involving the access of legitimate VPN services that are used by companies to enhance security."
The comment suggests that China may be interfering with public VPN services used by travellers to get a clear internet connection, while allowing corporate VPN services used by businesspeople.
PC World also reported that people in China were having trouble accessing Google's Gmail service, which is accessed using a secure browser connection that is more difficult for the Chinese government to monitor.
What it means for travellers
The Chinese government's increased restriction of the use of VPN services means travellers may be unable to access many websites they're used to using, including Gmail, Skype, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube when in China.
Corporate VPN services may continue to work, so if you've been relying on using a paid one that you've subscribed to on a personal basis when travelling in China, talk to your company's IT department to see if corporate VPN access can be arranged.
If you are unable to get corporate VPN access when travelling to China, make sure any VPN service you subscribe to is an SSL VPN, not a PPTP VPN, as the former are more difficult for governments to detect and interfere with. Witopia, for example, says it is not aware of any country being able to block its SSL VPN service.