A new law expanding the number of domains available on the Internet could allow Chinese Internet users to bypass the country’s sophisticated system of online censorship known as the Great Firewall, or GFW, according to netizens.
On Monday, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the global Internet domain regulator, announced it would dramatically increase the number of Internet domain name endings—referred to as generic top-level domains (gTLDs).
Twenty-two gTLDs are currently in use, including such familiar domains as .com, .org, and .net, but ICANN’s announcement means that websites can soon be registered with suffixes consisting of nearly any word in any language, changing the way netizens search for information.
“This is the greatest change in the history of the Internet—ending the era of .com only,” said Xi Xili, a netizen in China.
“From now on, there might be a cyber-address ending with sensitive terms in Chinese pinyin such as .liusi or .falungong,” he added.
“Liusi” is the Chinese pinyin for “June 4th,” the day when troops opened fire on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, killing thousands according to some estimates.
“Falungong” is the name of a religious meditation group that was banned by Beijing in 1999. Its members are the target of an ongoing government crackdown.
Technological limits remain
Beijing-based Internet technology expert Dong Xiaoxing was less optimistic.
“Censors can still block the new domain names because the technical principles are the same,” he said. “But more choices for users are encouraging,” he added.
On Monday, the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily group unveiled a new search engine www.jike.com.
Tests revealed that many sensitive terms, such as “liusi,” remain filtered out from search results.
“The government’s search engine is always the same old thing, but sometimes with a different label,” said Shanghai-based netizen Mo Nan.
Internet controls tightened
China imposes a complex system of blocks, keyword filters, and human censorship known collectively as the Great Firewall, or GFW.
In May, China set up a nationwide command center to oversee the country's 477 million netizens and to "manage information" on the Internet, prompting fears that online controls will get tighter still.
The State Internet Information Office, directly under the control of China's cabinet, or State Council, will "direct, coordinate, and supervise online content management," official media reported.
The most recent crackdown on dissent in China began following anonymous online calls for a "Jasmine" revolution, inspired by recent uprisings in the Middle East.
Rights groups say dozens of activists, lawyers, and cyber-dissidents have been detained, sent to labor camp, or sentenced to jail terms for subversion.
Reported by Xin Yu for RFA’s Mandarin service. Translated by Ping Chen. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.