In its latest move aimed at controlling its borders in cyberspace, the ruling Chinese Communist Party has announced draft plans to force companies to run their websites and portals from servers inside China.
Draft regulations posted on the website of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology suggest the country is seeking further powers to censor content seen online by its citizens, in a move that looks set to affect both foreign and Chinese companies.
The strategy is in keeping with President Xi Jinping's belief in the concept of "Internet sovereignty," whereby a country maintains its borders as much in cyberspace as it does on the ground.
A new clause in an update to existing legislation says that any company providing services to Chinese users must register its domain, or Web address, with a Chinese service provider.
Many of China's biggest Internet portals have domain names registered overseas, although their content is stored on domestic servers.
According to Francis Fung, Beijing government adviser and president of Hong Kong Information Technology Federation, the move would make it easier for Chinese censors to control what its citizens see.
"This seems to be targeting Internet users in mainland China, in particular those who like to browse websites outside China," Fung said.
Many sites blocked
China operates a complex system of blocks, keyword filters, and human censorship known collectively as the Great Firewall to control what its citizens can access online.
Many key overseas sites and services are blocked, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Google, according to searches on the anti-censorship site GreatFire.org on Wednesday.
"This law is about whether Chinese netizens visit Chinese sites or overseas sites," Fung said. "If you don't have a server inside China, then you'll still have to register a domestic domain name."
"But as to whether or not it will be enforced, I don't know. Chinese legislation often has grey areas in it," he said.
He said the law will likely provide a legal justification for the inaccessibility of content.
"The Chinese government has blocked websites whose content it doesn't like in the past, but it has given no explanation," Fung said. "When this law takes effect, [that will be the explanation.]"
'It will have an effect'
Guangdong-based activist Jia Pin said the proposed rules could make it harder for Chinese citizens to see news from outside the country online.
"Of course it'll have an effect; it will make it even harder to browse overseas content," Jia said. "I use Twitter a lot, to send out news on human rights activities in China."
"This could make it much harder to get over the Great Firewall."
He said the authorities are worried that a rapid growth in high-speed access will soon make it very hard to control Internet activity at all.
"[Access] is getting more and more widespread and more and more convenient ... and it's going to be very hard to suppress," Jia said.
"These new rules are definitely aimed at suppressing online freedom and freedom of expression in China."
Faster response seen
According to Shenzhen-based technology blogger Long Weilian, the shift of registration to a domestic provider under Chinese government control would allow censors to react more quickly in blocking access to certain sites.
"Before, they had to contact the server, get the address, talk to the manager, and then ask them to censor something," Long told the Associated Press.
"If the domains are all domestic, they can directly stop traffic going to your domain with a command."
The move is in line with increasingly tighter controls on China's media under Xi's administration, according to Xie Jiaye, head of the New York-based Chinese Association of Science and Technology.
"This is all of a piece with recent controls by Beijing over the media, under which the media must 'take the same surname' as the party," Xie said.
"Now, websites will have to toe the party line as well ... except that they're hard to control, and that's what this law is intended for," he said.
Reported by Wong Lok-to for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Shan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.