Chinese programmer fined over R2.85 million for using VPN

The public security bureau of the northern Chinese city Chengde has fined a programmer over 1 million yuan for using a virtual private network (VPN) service, The Guardian reports.

The publication said the penalty was believed to be the most severe yet issued for bypassing the so-called “Great Firewall of China”.

The programmer — whose only public identifier is his surname Ma — received the penalty notice on 18 August 2023 after he was found to have used “unauthorised channels” to connect to the global Internet to work for a Turkish company.

All 1.058 million yuan (R2.85 million) Ma had earned for his work between September 2019 and November 2022 was regarded as illegal income and confiscated by the police. He was also fined 200 yuan (R539) for using the VPN.

In a now-removed post on Weibo, archived by China Digital Times, Ma explained that he only used a VPN to attend Zoom meetings. He alleged other aspects of his job did not require a VPN.

Ma said police seized his phone, laptop, and hard drives for a month after he told them he was working for an overseas company during questioning.

He was also told to provide information about his work, bank account, and employment contract before being slapped with the penalty. The programmer said he would appoint a lawyer to appeal the decision.

China’s government has significant control over Internet access among its citizens.

Its “Great Firewall” consists of an assortment of legal and technological censorship tools used to regulate incoming and outgoing web traffic.

The government blocks numerous websites and apps that are popular in other parts of the world, including Google, Wikipedia, YouTube, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, and Instagram. It also censors certain keywords in search engines.

Technically speaking, VPNs are not illegal in China and are used in commercial activity — including in businesses and training institutions — to communicate with international partners.

But these VPNs must be government-approved and cooperate with the state’s requests for information, which could include their browsing histories.

Therefore, many of the most well-known VPN providers — with strict policies against sharing such information with authorities — may not be used in China.

That being said, the Chinese government is generally not too bothered about people using such VPNs to access popular services like Google, Facebook, and Twitter/X.

However, there have been several reports of people being jailed for using or selling VPNs over the past few years.

Now read: WhatsApp getting built-in VPN protection for calls

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Chinese programmer fined over R2.85 million for using VPN