China Ramps Up Control of Domain Names, Adds New Layer to Great Firewall

2017-01-16
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Men look at computers in an internet bar in Beijing, in file photo.
Men look at computers in an internet bar in Beijing, in file photo.
AFP

The ruling Chinese Communist Party looks set to add a new layer to state control over what the country's 710 million internet users can see online, with a raft of new measures that could undermine their use of virtual private networks (VPNs) to get around censorship.

The draft regulations, which were first released for public consultation in March 2016, would require any websites operating in China to register with a Chinese domain name, which is subject to state control and can be used to shut down entire websites within the country-level .cn top-level domain.

Xinhua news agency published an article on Jan. 11 suggesting that the requirement, which sparked concerns at the time over deeper censorship and access by foreign businesses to the Chinese market, is unlikely to be dropped.

"The domain names are like the nerves of the internet," Xinhua cited experts as saying. "Once there is a problem with the nerves, it is difficult to take any kind of follow-up action."

The draft rules would also "promote cooperation with China's development tasks among overseas organizations," the state-run agency said.

Sang Young, information security expert at the Hong Kong Internet Society, said the move could also serve to tighten state control over Chinese users' access to overseas-based websites, adding another layer to the complex set of blocks, filters and human censorship known as the Great Firewall.

"Under the current Great Firewall system, Chinese users are still able to see content that the government thinks is unsuitable [by accessing overseas sites through VPNs]," he said.

"But under these domain name regulations being implemented by the Chinese government ... people who don't register with domestic domain names won't be allowed to [set up websites]," he said.

Bolstering Great Firewall

Young said the new rules will likely affect overseas websites and content providers hoping to attract a Chinese audience or set up new services in China.

"In the past, they had a blacklist approach which meant that only sites that were considered problematic were blocked," he said.

He said the ultimate target of the new rules is preventing users from tunneling under the Great Firewall with virtual private networks (VPNs).

"Any overseas connections that are not approved will be blocked," Young told RFA. "Once the communication is cut off, it is the equivalent of a wall; there will be no holes for VPN to drill through."

Guangzhou-based writer and internet expert Ye Du said the move will bring much more online content under Beijing's control.

"Once these rules are implemented, the government has a reliable way to ensure that overseas news organizations reporting on China will be forced to self-censor, if they want to open up bigger markets in China," Ye said.

"They will be forced to modify their own reporting in order to continue existing, to avoid being shut off completely once they are blocked," he said.

China's powerful internet regulator has ordered online app stores to register with the government starting on Monday, heralding a new era of state control over the mobile web.

"Starting on Jan. 16, 2017, branches of the Cyberspace Administration at provincial, autonomous region and city level are required to be ready for the official launch of app store registration," the Cyberspace Administration said in a statement on its official website.

Censoring all news

The move is part of a bid to "further promote the healthy and orderly development of the online app store industry and regulate mobile app-based information services," the statement said.

The emphasis on "mobile app-based information services" comes as the ruling Chinese Communist Party broadens a nationwide clampdown on any news or media content that hasn't been pre-approved by censors.

Such apps have "resulted in the dissemination of illegal information," the Cyberspace Administration said.

A spokesman for the agency said in the statement that online app stores seeking registration are now required to submit an application form to its website.

They will be audited for security, handling of user data, and content, the statement said.

China's cabinet, the State Council, recently highlighted "weak management" of online app stores, calling for unified government policies to police the fast-growing sector.

Reported by Goh Fung for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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