China has blocked its citizens from accessing HBO content online, following criticism angled at its President by Last Week Tonight host John Oliver. The block follows a series of online censorship moves from the country, which has led to its internet blocking being dubbed ‘The Great Firewall'.
Censorship watchdog Greatfire.org, which monitors China's online restrictions, reported that as of Saturday, HBO's site had been completely blocked to internet users in China.
China has also censored of the Last Week Tonight show and its content on Weibo, China's answer to Twitter.
Why has China Blocked HBO?
It appears that Chinese officials didn't take lightly to criticisms that Oliver levelled at President Xi Jinping, in a segment last week that saw the irreverent host point out physical similarities between the leader and cartoon bear, Winnie the Pooh.
More damning still, Oliver also criticised the country's human rights record and its “dystopian levels of surveillance and persecution”.
It's unclear which of these slights Chinese officials took the most offence at, but after the show had aired on 17 June, users on Weibo who tried to mention the show or Oliver's name were confronted with an error message stating that the content violated Weibo's rules.
Soon after, the HBO website was completely blocked in China. The segment from the show is also not available on streaming sites that host other episodes of Last Week Tonight.
In response, Oliver stated:
“Clamping down on Winnie the Pooh comparisons doesn’t exactly project strength. It suggests a weird insecurity”
Are VPNs Legal in China?
On paper, VPN's aren't illegal in China to use – at least, not yet. The government did threaten to make them illegal in April 2018, but to date this hasn't happened officially. However, their use is widely condemned by authorities. At the end of last year, China jailed a man for five and a half years for selling VPN software.
Censoring online content is nothing new for China. Just last week, it passed a ban on ASMR content, a type of video where whispering and mouth sounds are used to produce an ‘autonomous sensory median response', the scientific name for the tingling sensation that this causes in some viewers. However, in the view of Chinese officials, it's far from innocent, and has been banned under pornography laws.
This rampant restriction of content makes VPNs even more appealing to Chinese internet users.
It's difficult to know just how many people are using VPNs in China, but data from VPN providers and market research companies point to it being a thriving market for the software. Research from GlobalWebData suggests that 31% of Chinese internet users run a VPN.
Despite a somewhat sketchy reputation in some quarters, there are very few countries where VPNs are outright banned. Only a handful of territories have banned them entirely, such as Belarus and North Korea. In others, they are legal – in theory – but heavily restricted, including in Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and China itself.
If you live in America or Europe, you'll be able to legally use a VPN without concern, so long as you're not using them to carry out illegal activity, such as hacking or sharing copyrighted content.
Read our guide to find the best VPN for 2018 on TechCo