If you've been struggling to get your dose of Facebook or Twitter in China recently, then you're probably one of the many Internet users who've had their VPN access -- either free or paid for -- blocked over the last two weeks or so. That's right, the notorious Great Firewall of China is still alive and well, and leaving proxy servers aside, VPN is pretty much the only way for keen netizens to access websites that are deemed too sensitive for their eyes; or to "leap over the wall," as they say. Alas, the recent pro-democracy protests didn't exactly do these guys any favor -- for one, their organizers used Twitter along with an overseas human rights website to gather protesters, and with the National People's Congress meetings that were about to take place (and wrapped up last night), it was no surprise that the government went tough on this little bypassing trick. To make matters worse, PC World is reporting that Gmail users are also affected by slow or limited access, despite the service previously being free from China's blacklist.

We reached out to a handful of major VPN service providers, and they all confirmed a significant increase in the amount of blockage -- possibly by having their servers' PPTP IP addresses blocked -- over the last two weeks. One company even spotted the Chinese government subscribing to its paid service, only to work its way into the network to locate the company's PPTP server list, and then put them behind the firewall. Fortunately for some, the better-off companies had backup servers to rapidly resolve the problem, whereas the cheaper and free services were unable to dodge the bullet. This just goes to show that sometimes you get what you pay for. That said, with practically unlimited human hacking power at its disposal, it doesn't take much for the firewall to shut down everything heading its way. For the sake of our friends and expats there, let's just hope that the government will take things down a notch as soon as the storm calms.

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China tightens grip on VPN access amid pro-democracy protests, Gmail users also affected