The draft revisions to the Regulations for the Management of the Domain Name System that China’s Ministry of Industry and Technology (MIIT) published last week, has elicited quite vociferous responses. Various news outlets alleged that these regulations entailed China might cut itself off from the global Internet, that addresses in the .com or .org domains might be at risk, and that foreign websites might have to re-register within China in order to maintain access to its market.
Few of these comments, however, evince an understanding of how the domain name system (DNS) works, and how these regulations might impact online traffic. In brief, in order to communicate, different computers require a unique identity and address. On the Internet, this address is called the IP address, and consists of either 32 (old system) or 128 bits. However, humans aren’t very good at remembering such codes, and therefore require something more recognizable, for instance www.baidu.com. This is called a domain name. The domain name system (DNS) ensures that it is possible to resolve the latter into the former, or in other words, that we can type easily understood names in a computer, which are then translated for machine use.
There are different kinds of domains. Some are geographically subdivided, such as .fr, .de, or .cn. Others are identifiable by generic category, such as .com, .net, .edu or .gov. All domains are managed by a registry, which regulate the use of that domain. For geographical domains, such registries are usually nationally defined. The .cn domain, for instance (as well as its counterpart in characters) is run by the Chinese Internet Network Information Centre. Generic categories are administered by companies accredited by ICANN, the global authority for online addressing. The .com domain, for instance, is in the hands of Verisign. These registries, in turn, licence “registrars” to commercially market these domains to customers.
Generally, trade in such domain names has been relatively free and unconstrained. For instance, particular geographical domain names, such as “.tv” (Tuvalu) or “.be” (Belgium) have become popular for marketing purposes, and have been purchased by website operators across the globe. Conversely, an operator’s physical location has generally not been a barrier to acquiring and operating a generic domain name.
What is then the problem with the new rules? Specifically, Article 37 introduces a requirement for “domain names for whom network access is realized within the country” to register that domain name with a Chinese registrar. Conversely, Internet access providers (those businesses connecting content stored on a server somewhere with the global Internet, amongst others by providing an IP address) are prohibited from providing such services to operators violating this requirement.
To be sure, the language used in this article could have been somewhat clearer, and observers are not completely wrong when they argue that linguistic ambiguity has often been used to expand government power in China. However, to interpret the text of Article 37 as cutting off access to the global Internet seems to be overly ambitious. Also, this seemingly does not mean all Chinese websites would be mandated to use a local domain (.cn, .中国 or .公司 for example). On the one hand, there are registrars across many countries that trade in .cn domains. Conversely, nothing stops a Chinese registrar from contracting with Verisign to register “.com” domains. In other words, a reasonable reading of this article does not mean, for instance, that the domain baidu.com would be banned, only that the domain name has to be registered with a registrar located within Mainland China.
It is tempting, and certainly justified, to see this measure as another step to expand the control of Internet authorities over online activities in China. Apart from Article 37, the draft regulations also expand real-name registration requirements, making it easier to identify alleged miscreants. But that is only one element of the story. There is also an economic rationale. Domain names are valuable assets, and requiring operators in the largest online market worldwide to obtain domain name registration services from local businesses redirects significant revenue flows.
Perhaps most importantly, these new regulations are a manifestation of what the Chinese leadership calls its Internet sovereignty. In the CCP’s reading, sovereignty does not merely refer to the ability to exclude foreign interference in domestic affairs, but also to having the capability to effectively implement governing authority all across its territory. In cyberspace as in real space, that authority primarily requires that individuals can be identified and, when necessary, sanctioned. These new rules make that process much easier where the ownership and operation of domain names is concerned.
Lastly, there are consequences for Internet diplomacy. On the one hand, they display China’s growing assertiveness to enforce its particular approach to Internet governance. Moreover, they may foster the growth of China’s domestic domain name industry, which Beijing hopes will give it greater leverage internationally. Yet at the same time, they represent an intriguing step away from an approach that might have had global consequences. A few months ago, a U.S.-based registry, xyz.com, made a deal with Chinese authorities in which it agreed to ban domain names with content Beijing identified as objectionable. That agreement would have made thousands of domain names unavailable to users worldwide. After considerable public outcry, xyz.com altered its stance. By moving the focus to local registrars, China’s authorities have consciously or unconsciously limited the impact of its domain name management systems to domestic operators. Such self-restraint is, nevertheless, scarce consolation for those hoping for a more liberal Internet in China.