Chinese hotel lobbies lose status as last portal to open internet

Beijing is further tightening its grip over the internet by closing off one of the last portals allowing users to evade restrictions imposed by the ‘Great Firewall of China’ – plush hotel lobbies.

Regulators have warned firms providing internet networks for hotels to stop offering, or helping to install, virtual private networks (VPNs) into hotel systems – tools that allow users to evade, at least partially, China’s internet censors.

“We received notices recently from relevant (government) departments, so we don’t make recommendations anymore,” said a marketing manager at Chinese hotel network provider AMTT Digital, who is not named as he is not authorised to talk to the media. He added this was linked to increased government scrutiny over the use of unauthorised VPNs.

VPNs create a ‘tunnel’ through the Great Firewall allowing users to access blocked content outside China’s borders. Companies in China routinely use VPNs for their businesses, and Beijing has said these are not currently under threat.

A notice from the Waldorf Astoria in Beijing, circulated online, said the hotel had stopped offering VPN services.

A Waldorf official declined to comment, but several staff said the hotel no longer offered VPN services. “(VPNs) don’t accord with Chinese law,” one staffer said. “So we don’t have this any more.”

A leading internet network provider to hotels in China, AMTT Digital says it works with more than 30 global hotel chains including Marriott, InterContinental, Shangri-La , Wyndham, Starwood and Hilton.

Previously, the firm, which is backed by several funds including ones with government ties, would recommend ‘certified’, or government-approved, VPNs, the manager said, which would then be incorporated into hotels’ internal networks.

“We would make recommendations of certified VPN providers and then incorporate them into the gateway so it runs smoothly,” he said. “But it is up to the hotel to decide if they want it.”

China’s Ministry of Information Industry and Technology (MIIT), which oversees regulation of VPNs, did not respond to requests from Reuters for comment.

As it clamps down further on access to outlawed online content, Beijing has recently closed dozens of China-based VPNs, overseas providers have seen rolling attacks on their services, the WhatsApp encrypted messaging app was disrupted, and telecoms firms have been enlisted to extend China’s domestic internet control.

Earlier this week Apple was forced to remove VPN apps from its Chinese App store and the tech giant has been increasingly relenting to Beijing’s demands as its sales slip in the country.

“We’re in the middle of the storm right now with the government fiercely cracking down on VPNs,” said Lin Wei, a Beijing-based network security expert at Qihoo 360 Technology Co. “It’s really hard for ordinary people to find anywhere they can get on sites like Google.”

The ‘neutered’ hotel VPNs, which staff and analysts said were often installed with tacit approval from authorities, already underline sensitivities of even ceding small amounts of control.

President Xi Jinping has overseen a marked sharpening of China’s cyberspace controls, including tough new data surveillance and censorship rules. This push is now ramping up ahead of an expected consolidation of power at the Communist Party Congress this autumn.

Foreign businesses have expressed concern over the stricter rules , suggesting that they will struggle to operate under the new regime.  

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