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China Tightens Internet Control in the Name of Fighting Porn, Piracy, and Cybercrime

Rebecca MacKinnon

As the year draws to a close, China's blocking of overseas websites — including Facebook, Twitter, and thousands of other websites including my blog — is more extensive and technically more sophisticated than ever. Controls over domestic content have also been tightening. People who work for Chinese Internet companies continue to complain that they remain under heavy pressure to be more thorough about the way in which they police and censor blogging platforms, social networking sites, discussion forums, and any form of user-generated content. As feared, the censorship arms race, which began in the run-up to the anniversary of the June 4th crackdown, intensified after the Xinjiang riots, and ramped up further in the run-up to the October 1st 60th Anniversary of the People's Republic of China passed uneventfully.

The past few weeks have seen four new moves which are not officially or overtly aimed at political content, but which have implications for the way in which the government controls all conveyors of all kinds of speech. First, late November saw the launch of a mobile porn crackdown. The draconian way in which this crackdown is being implemented, however, involves a great deal of collateral damage for non-pornographic content. For example, the crackdown has caused China Mobile and other wireless carriers to suspend all billing of all WAP and G+ mobile services, including those by legitimate companies in good standing who are not involved with porn. As this article in Chinese on DoNews points out, the mobile content market in China is growing fast and getting quite lucrative.

Second, Chinese the state-run media is going after the search engines again for — horror of horrors, turning up smutty results when users search for smutty information. In early December, China Central Television (CCTV) ran a report which accused Google, Baidu, and Sohu of irresponsibility. According to the research firm JLM Pacific Epoch:

"The report said Google "persisted in its old ways" and "explored every avenue to avoid China's 'anti-low-brow' campaign" after previous reports on the subject by the state broadcaster but noted that Google's English version contains content far more obscene than its Chinese language site. None of the three parties has made any official response, the report said."

I would not want to be running Google China these days. No fun.

Third, last week the government shut down more than 500 file-sharing websites as part of an anti-porn and anti-piracy crackdown, on the grounds that these websites don't have proper licenses. For a sampling of Chinese netizen reaction, see Global Voices Online and People's Daily Online. ReadWriteWeb points out that given China's strict government controls on what movies can legally be shown, these sites are the only way for many Chinese to access a lot of content. Much political jockeying by the more established services is now underway, and Xinhua indicates that the largest file-sharing site, VeryCD is fighting for survival.

Fourth, CNNIC, the organization which runs the .cn top-level domain has announced that it is no longer accepting domain name applications from individuals. The stated reason in news reports is to control abuse of the .cn domain name space by criminals. Under the new rules, if you want to buy any domain name ending in .cn you have to provide ID and proof of company or organizational registration. As the Internet Governance Project's Milton Mueller puts it, "China's government is using its control of domain names to impose more strict controls over the Internet." Chinese Internet users have an interesting take on this latest development. Some like William Long say that this is actually a good thing, because anybody who isn't in lockstep with the Chinese government is better off staying away from .cn to begin with. Since January he has been urging Chinese Internet users not to use .cn domains, even posting instructions for how to buy domains on GoDaddy, arguing that .cn domains are too risky because the government could take the domain away from you at any time on vague grounds that you are violating some Chinese law, regulation, or whatever.

It's also worth noting that CNNIC is now applying to ICANN to run .中国 — and plans to apply for .网络 and .公司 whenever ICANN opens up the application process for generic top-level domains. As the Internet's domain name system becomes multilingual, will the Chinese language domain space be hospitable to anybody who is not in total synch with the PRC government? The answer is pretty clear by now: only if non-PRC entities can run Chinese-language top-level domains outside of China. Will ICANN ensure that this will indeed be possible? We don't know yet. ICANN is still formulating the application process for new generic top-level domains, which includes the details of a process by which governments can object to — and potentially block — applications.

By Rebecca MacKinnon, Journalist and activist; Co-founder, Global Voices Online. More blog posts from Rebecca MacKinnon can also be read here.

Related topics: Access Providers, Censorship, ICANN, Internet Governance, Policy & Regulation, Privacy, Top-Level Domains


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There are far better ways to skin this fraudulent domains cat Suresh Ramasubramanian  –  Dec 14, 2009 8:02 PM PDT

Especially as most of the fraudulent registrations of fastflux / botnet domains (.cn - as well as .com, .net etc) are being done through like three or four China based registrars. Quite probably by eastern europeans with reseller status or other API level access to facilitate fast creation and update of domains.

It won't even help stem the tide of fraudulent domains - four or five days (the usual time required to allow for postal delay and such) is more than enough lifetime for such domains.

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