The co-founder of Internet monitoring site GreatFire.org, known only as Percy Alpha, was rather surprised when he noticed that the traffic flows from the Chinese mainland to mirrored versions of Google sites had increased sharply.
The demand for Virtual Private Networks, or VPNs, and mirror sites has "skyrocketed," Alpha told the Global Times. "Since the blockage of Google on May 30, the daily active visitors on our Google mirror sites rose from 20,000 before to over 100,000 after - a fivefold increase."
Alpha believes that users of VPNs - computer networks that use encrypted communications protocols via overseas servers to log on to blocked websites - from the Chinese mainland have boomed after a recent block on Google and associated websites.
To cope with the influx of visitors, VPN providers have also been going to great lengths to provide more reliable services, by upgrading technology or using international cloud services to cope with the growing traffic. One VPN service provider even temporarily suspended new registrations to expand its bandwidth to upgrade services, Alpha noted.
In recent years, more and more Chinese Net users are forced to seek alternatives to surf the Internet outside of the Great Firewall (GFW), China's Internet infrastructure, by using mirror websites that show blocked Google search results, or by using VPNs.
With the blocks on Google showing no signs of being relaxed, analysts are predicting that the market for VPN services - which range in price but with most of the easily available options selling for around 98 yuan ($15.7) each month - is going to expand significantly.
"Multinational companies and domestic companies which do business overseas heavily rely on some of the services provided by Google, including Gmail, Paypal, Google maps and other services, to communicate and do business," an expert on information security with the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications (BUPT), who asked to remain anonymous, told the Global Times.
Thus the influence of the blocks on Google has been severe. According to a report in the Financial Times, the block has hit many overseas companies in China such as taxi hailing app companies, smartphone online gambling companies, as well as some property companies.
Since May 30, Net users in the Chinese mainland have been experiencing one of the longest and the strictest blocks on Google and its associated websites, with analysts predicting that the government may tighten its supervision over Internet content amid tensions between China and the US over Internet security.
Taobao, China's largest online shopping platform, issued a notice in August 2011, prohibiting any sales of VPN-related products. The search for VPN on taobao.com obtains a result reading "according to relevant laws and regulations, VPN-related goods haven't been shown."
Nevertheless, the search results for "proxy and virtual" "Web accelerator" and "SSH" still reached more than 17,000.
An anonymous Beijing-based VPN retailer from Taobao said trade doubled after the recent blocks on Google.
"Before Google was blocked, the number of visits to my taobao shop was around 10 but now, there are at least 20 visits a day. I have to employ more online salespeople to answer inquiries," an online shop owner, who asked not to be named, told the Global Times.
Alpha said that there are now hundreds of VPN service providers from all across the world, with some targeted at the Chinese mainland market.
Along with the growth of VPN services, GreatFire.org has also been boosting its services relating to mirrored sites. The organization has set up more mirror sites to make blocked content available to all Chinese without the need of a VPN. On Twitter, it has attracted over 13,000 followers and its Freeweibo account, which shows banned Weibo posts, has 23,000 followers, most of whom are Chinese.
There have concerns regarding the legality and legitimacy of VPNs in China, as according to Chinese law, providing VPNs for individual users for the purpose of accessing banned websites is illegal on the Chinese mainland, while offering VPNs for corporate use is legal.
Multinational companies and domestic companies that do business abroad can rely on VPN services provided by China's telecommunication companies, including China Telecom, China Unicom, China Mobile and some other telecom operators to bypass the GFW, which is legal, safe and protected by the law, the expert noted.
However, most individuals in China have to purchase VPN services from companies based overseas, which is not protected by the law. And this has become a problem, the expert from the BUPT noted.
"To be protected by the law, foreign VPN service providers have to open branches on the Chinese mainland, and register with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, if they want to continue to do business on the Chinese mainland," he told the Global Times.
"As far as I know, I haven't heard that any foreign companies have registered."
He said that if VPN service providers are not registered, the Chinese authorities can monitor their services at any time which will affect their services.
VPN providers and legal experts have sought to clarify laws and regulations regarding the use of VPNs.
"We ask our users to fight against the GFW by reposting mirror sites, censored content or complaining to the government directly," said Alpha, who believes that the fight against the firewall has been heating up.
Chen Tao, a Beijing lawyer, viewed it differently. He said that under China's complicated cyber security situation, it remains necessary for Chinese authorities to monitor the Internet, and this has been a common practice in most countries.
"The content surfed should comply with Chinese laws and should not include any information that may infringe on China's national interests," Chen told the Global Times.
To cater to the Chinese market, some blocked foreign websites have taken the initiative to register with authorities in the Chinese mainland to solve the problem. According to a July report in Bloomberg, Facebook leased space in downtown Beijing to open a China office. Its website has been banned on the Chinese mainland since 2009.
The BUPT expert said it is reasonable for any government to set up a firewall to fight against pornographic and illicit Internet content. For instance, the Internet has been plagued by websites and content that advocate violence, pornography and gambling.
But some Net users still show growing interest in obtaining information outside of the mainstream media. Some rely on VPNs to help with their daily communications, work and business.
In one complaint letter to GreatFire.org, an engineer said he used to rely on Google scholar to browse through essays and useful files to help his research, but now, the months-long blockage on Google had made it difficult for him to continue his academic work.
In another letter, a Chinese businessman complained about the possible danger of losing clients as he contacted his clients via Gmail, and his payment system, Paypal, relies on Google's services.
But the VPN services are far from reliable. Some VPNs are reported to carry malicious software which can steal user's private information.
Some users complain about the instability of VPN services. The systems often either fail or work very slowly, and often these access problems occur at the same time.
Sometimes, it takes a long time to log on to a blocked website even with a VPN, said Liu Hao, a senior editor from Tencent.com, who has been using VPN services to browse banned websites for years.
There have been constant cases in which VPN service providers fail to provide a stable service for Chinese mainland users and cause trouble for Net users.
On July 2, thousands of Net users posted their complaints over this issue to "log on Line," an online communication tool, and urged the service provider to recover its services as soon as possible, after its official Weibo account announced a failure to provide services for its mainland users.
In August 2010, residents in China found it difficult to log onto the blocked websites, including Facebook, Twitter and other popular Web portals via VPNs, which caused a round of apologies from some popular overseas VPN service providers and spurred them to renew their protocols to cope with the problems.
In a well-circulated Weibo post by Wang Chong, an independent critic and commentator from ifeng.com, Wang cited a veteran professor from Peking University who had to ask his students in the US to help him search for academic materials because he failed to log on to his VPN.
While Wang warned of the possible negative influence of the blockage, Alpha said he hoped that despite the controversy, the VPN services could remain a permanent and possible alternative for the Chinese Net users to get around the GFW.
China undoubtedly needs a free flow of information in an era of information globalization, the expert with the BUPT noted. But he pointed out that the development of the VPN market in China would largely depend on China's social development and how these VPN service providers adapt to China's laws and regulations.