China is tightening the screws on internet access, again. The latest crackdown—an evolving effort to ban virtual private networks (VPNs) not under government control—could seriously erode scientists’ ability to stay connected with peers abroad.
“Internet accessibility is a major obstacle for our research. It makes international collaboration difficult and damages the reputation and competitiveness of Chinese science institutes,” says an astronomer in Beijing who, like others contacted for this story, feared possible repercussions for criticizing official policy and asked to remain anonymous.
China’s Great Firewall routes virtually all incoming international internet traffic through a handful of access points, where government servers block access to blacklisted domain names and internet protocol addresses. The list of forbidden sites—Wikipedia tallies at least 3000—includes social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. China reportedly has 50,000 internet police who monitor domestic social media sites, deleting posts deemed seditious or merely critical of the government. Sites now commonly used for research are also blocked. These include Google Scholar, important for scholarly searches; Google Docs and Dropbox, which allow scientists to share materials for organizing conferences and managing collaborations; and even, unfathomably, the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Many scientists in China routinely bypass the Great Firewall using VPN software that routes traffic through foreign servers. The central government had long tolerated VPNs, but these are now in the crosshairs.
Earlier this year, the Ministry of Industry and Information…