China’s Internet Control

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 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.”

“That could allow the government to monitor users’ activity and strengthen their control over what content is accessible,” according to Lento Yip, chairman of the Hong Kong Internet Service Providers Association.

The government of China, which has the world’s largest internet population, “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,” Yip said.

Fear grows that if this “trend” continues, we can predict that the Chinese network will soon become a big “intranet”, totally monitored by the “Big brother” network.

“The authority can block all domain name servers outside of China with the ‘Great Firewall’ and allow only domestic domain name servers to serve Chinese internet users requests.”

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” foreign websites including those of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Web Blogs and other social medias.

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 President Xi Jinping took power three years ago, passing a security law establishing “cyber sovereignty,” making retweets of “rumors” a crime and advancing regulations that would let companies in key sectors only use technology deemed “safe and controllable.”

“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,” Tsui said in an e-mail. “It doesn’t seem exclusive to .cn.”

 “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,” 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.

Yip said the regulations will likely apply only to websites hosted on servers within the country.

“Domain names engaging in network access within the borders shall have services provided by domestic domain name registration service bodies,” according to the rules published.

“For domain names engaging in network access within the borders, but which are not managed by domestic domain name registration service bodies, internet access service providers may not provide network access services.”

Beijing is considering establishing a high-level inter-departmental commission to screen “internet services and hardware” as it tightens its grip over cyberspace.

The “Cyberspace Administration of China” issued a draft outline of measures to bolster “online” ­security, saying the commission would assess whether products such as “servers or internet services” could be hijacked by an outside party, and the “privacy” of users compromised. The commission would coordinate work related to the screening, the draft said.

It said government and Communist Party offices should only purchase “products or services” vetted by the committee. Operators of critical internet infrastructure that could involve “state security” should also use only approved products and services.

The leadership has been trying to foster the development of “home-grown network technology to improve cybersecurity,” and President Xi Jinping established the “Central Leading Group for Cybersecurity Affairs” in 2014, which he chairs.

Beijing has also adopted a “controversial” cybersecurity law, which requires “operators of critical information infrastructure” to store personal information and important business data within the Chinese mainland.

It has also launched a nationwide campaign against unauthorized internet connections, including “Virtual Private Networks” (VPN) that allow users to “bypass” internet regulators.

The cyberspace administration earlier vowed to help ensure the online environment was conducive to a major Communist Party congress to be held later this year.

Zuo Xiaodong, vice-president of the “China Information Security Research Institute” and an adviser on internet policies, said the latest draft was aimed at major information infrastructure and general users would not be seriously ­affected.

“Key information infrastructure include things like operation systems of key offices of the state and the party. Screening such services and products was a common ­practice in other countries” Zuo said.

“Many countries screen information products and services because of security concerns, though they might not call it censorship,” Zuo said, pointing to the difficulties telecom’s equipment makers ZTE and Huawei have encountered in the United States.

In 2012, the US House of Representatives’ Intelligence Committee said in a report that Huawei and ZTE “cannot be trusted to be free of foreign state influence and thus pose a security threat to the United States and to our systems.”

“US intelligence agencies should stay focused on efforts by Huawei and ZTE to expand in the US and inform the private sector as much as possible about the purported espionage threat” the panel’s leaders said.

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