Amazon partner in China tells customers to stop using illegal VPNs

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BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – A Chinese partner of global e-commerce firm has told customers to stop using illegal virtual private networks (VPNs), which can circumvent internet censorship.

The instruction comes after Apple removed VPN services from its Chinese app store over the weekend, amid a government crackdown on their use to dodge restrictions on access to overseas websites.

In January, the government passed laws banning all VPNs not approved by regulators. Its stance is that rules governing cyberspace should mimic real-world border controls and that the internet should be subject to the same laws as sovereign states.

“If we discover [clients using unapproved VPNs], we will shut down services,” said a member of staff at Beijing Sinnet Technology, which operates Amazon’s cloud business, Amazon Web Services (AWS), in China.

“We have asked clients to check all illegal cross-border businesses,” said the person, adding the company was acting on government instructions.

The person was not authorized to speak to the media and asked not to be identified. A member of staff at AWS, also on condition of anonymity, said directives had come from the government.

The relevant government authority did not respond to requests for comment.

An Amazon Web Services spokesman said that to comply with Chinese laws and regulations, the firm had to operate in China through local partners such as Sinnet.

Sinnet’s notice was “intended to remind customers of their obligations,” he said.

The government has shut down dozens of China-based VPN providers and has been targeting overseas services as it tightens control over the internet, ahead of a Communist Party congress later this year.

It has also requested internet network providers to high-end hotel chains – rare locations where users could access otherwise blocked sites – to stop recommending and helping to install VPNs.

Apple chief executive officer Tim Cook, talking to analysts about removing VPNs from its China app store, said the iPhone maker was complying with Chinese laws irrespective of whether it agreed with them.

“We would obviously rather not remove the apps, but like we do in other countries we follow the law wherever we do business,” he said on Tuesday.

“We’re hopeful that over time the restrictions we’re seeing are lessened, because innovation really requires freedom to collaborate and communicate.”

(Reporting by Li Pei in Beijing and Adam Jourdan in Shanghai and Jeffrey Dastin in San Francisco; Editing by Christopher Cushing and Stephen Coates)

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