China Considers a New Way to Tighten Its Control on the Internet

Some Worry China's Web Will Eventually Be Sealed Off From the World

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An internet cafe in Shanghai
An internet cafe in Shanghai Credit: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg
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China's government is moving to tighten its grip over the internet as it rolls out draft rules that will effectively ban Web domains not approved by local authorities -- including possibly the most widely used .com and .org addresses.

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology is seeking feedback on regulations proposing that internet domain names offering "domestic access" should only be provided by services supervised by the government, according to a notice posted on the regulator's website. Domain names are web locations such as .net or .cn, and under the proposal, their providers have to apply to the ministry for approval before Web addresses are allowed to operate.

Details on the proposal are still unclear, with some wording open to interpretation. But the regulations could allow the government to monitor users' activity and strengthen their control over what content is accessible, Lento Yip, chairman of the Hong Kong Internet Service Providers Association, said in an email. The government of China, which has the world's largest internet population, already blocks and filters content from local and overseas websites to keep a tight rein on citizens' access to information via the so-called Great Firewall.

"The domain name system will work in the background for your every single click on the browser, while the Great Firewall blocks outside content," Mr. Yip said. "If this trend continues, we can predict that the Chinese network will soon become a big intranet, totally monitored by a network 'big brother'."

China employs one of the world's most exhaustive internet censorship regimes to suppress dissent and information deemed dangerous by the Communist Party. Social media posts can be deleted and search terms blocked, while local web users can't access many foreign websites including those of Facebook and Twitter. The ministry didn't respond to a fax requesting comment on how the envisioned rules could affect internet regulation.

The government has increased restrictions since Xi Jinping took power three years ago, passing a security law establishing "cybersovereignty," making retweets of rumors a crime and advancing regulations that would let companies in key sectors only use technology deemed "safe and controllable." The Chinese leader made personal visits to top state-run media outlets last month, where reporters were called on to show loyalty to the party.

Authorities are seeking feedback on the draft until April 25. If adopted, the new rules mean that, instead of blacklisting specific sites, the government will grant access only to websites that make it onto a white list, said Lokman Tsui, an assistant professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who has advised Google on freedom of expression and the internet.

"This is a serious escalation, and from what I can see would be an unprecedented move," Mr. Tsui said in an email.

China last year erected regulations to supervise domain name registrars that operate within its borders, but the new rules would be the first time it's sought to extend its control over domains themselves, Mr. Tsui said. Article 37 of the proposed rules expressly puts domain names under central control, by blocking any not registered with the authorities, he said.

The wording was vague, and it's unclear whether websites hosted outside the country and administered by The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) -- the quasi-governmental non-profit gatekeeper for web addresses -- could be subject to the regulations. Mr. Yip said the regulations will likely apply only to websites hosted on servers within the country.

~~ Bloomberg News, with Ad Age Staff