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China’s Internet Domain Name Measures and the Digital Economy

May 16, 2016
Daniel Sepulveda and Lawrence E. Strickling

This post was cross posted to the State Department’s blog:

China is a force in the global digital economy and an important player in global Internet policy discussions. Today, more than 700 million people have access to the Internet in China, more than any country in the world. Several of the most valuable Internet-based companies call China home.  Global innovators and service providers from around the world, including from the United States, are eager to enter its market.

That’s why it is incredibly important that China use its power and influence in a manner that supports the continued development of the global Internet and the prosperity of its domestic digital economy. 

Both of our countries participate actively in a range of international organizations and processes that discuss the global development and deployment of the Internet.  We have both argued that the current processes, which rely on the cooperation of all stakeholders including government, industry, and civil society, are working effectively for the Internet’s future development and management.

However, the Chinese government’s recent actions run contrary to China’s stated commitments toward global Internet governance processes as well as its stated goals for economic reform.  

In late March 2016, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology issued draft measures that would require all Internet domain names in China to be registered through government-licensed service providers that have established a domestic presence in the country and would impose additional stringent regulations on the provision of domain name services.    

The regulations appear to create a barrier to access and force localization of data and domestic registration of domain names.  Whether driven by a motivation to increase control over Internet content in China or a desire to increase the quantity of Chinese-registered domain names, these regulations would contravene policies that have been established already at the global level by all Internet stakeholders (including Chinese).  If put into effect, these regulations would have potentially large and negative repercussions for everyone.

The regulations have led to expressions of concern in comments formally submitted by governments, including the United States, companies, and other stakeholders around the world that support an open and interoperable Internet.

The most controversial provision of China’s draft domain name measures – article 37 – has attracted considerable international concern, as some have interpreted the article to mean that all websites with domain names registered outside China will be blocked, thereby cutting off Chinese Internet users from the global Internet.  While Chinese authorities have clarified that the intent of the article would be to prohibit access to Chinese-registered domain names that are acquired from registries/registrars that are not in compliance with Chinese regulations, concerns remain that the language in its current form is vague and open to differing interpretations.  Even if applied to Chinese-registered domain names, China’s approach to DNS management within its borders could still contravene, undermine, and conflict with current policies for managing top level domains that emerge from the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which follows a multistakeholder model in its community-based and consensus-driven policymaking approach.

Other concerns with the measures include requirements for forced data localization and real name verification for the registration of Internet addresses.  For instance, the draft measures appear to mandate that all Internet domain name registrars, registries, root server operators, and others, maintain zone files in China, thereby compelling firms to create a system for their China operations, which is entirely separate from their global operations.  This forced localization, though not unprecedented in China, would potentially create new barriers to the free flow of information and commerce across borders and consequently infringe upon internationally recognized commitments on free expression and trade.  The regulations would also appear to formalize an explicit system of online censorship by forbidding the registration of websites containing any one of nine categories of prohibited content, broadly and vaguely defined, and creating a blacklist of “forbidden characters” in the registration of domain names, adding an extra layer of control to China’s Great Firewall.   

The United States supports the open global Internet as a platform for free expression and economic and human development worldwide, and we support the growth of China’s digital ecosystem within that context. We welcome the Chinese adoption and creation of Internet-based technologies and services.

What we do not accept is the exercise of aggressive authority over people’s use of the Internet or the ability of a government to prevent the world from reaching its people.  Sadly, this is exactly what Chinese authorities, through these recent measures, are trying to do.  Such efforts will not only create undue burdens and challenges for enterprises, both Chinese and foreign, operating in China, but they will also diminish the view of China as a constructive partner in the development of the global Internet.  Furthermore, they will hinder Chinese technology and services from achieving acceptance outside of China.     

We have listened to company concerns, consulted with diplomatic partners, and shared our views directly with the Chinese government, while calling for China to continue dialogue with a broad group of stakeholders as its draft regulations are revised.

The digital economy has become one of the most powerful engines for global economic growth.  If left unchanged, China’s regulations would undermine some of the most fundamental aspects of the Internet – openness, reliability, and interoperability – within China.  By creating its own rules for domain name management, China is threatening to fragment the Internet, which would limit the Internet’s ability to operate as a global platform for human communication, commerce, and creativity.

Lawrence E. Strickling serves as Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information and Administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Ambassador Daniel A. Sepulveda serves as U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy at the U.S. Department of State.