The Wall Street Journal, 29 March 2016
By Josh Chin and Eva Dou
The proposed rules would prohibit the country’s Internet-service providers from allowing connections to websites with domains, or Web addresses, registered outside China. Violators would face fines of up to 30,000 yuan ($4,621) and public notices exposing their failure to obey.
The new guidelines are part of a set of draft revisions to Chinese regulations on the management of Internet domain names, posted for public comment on a government website Monday afternoon.
If fully implemented, the regulations would effectively wall off the world’s most populous country from vast swaths of the Internet. Other, similar rules have been weakly enforced in the past, but with Chinese President Xi Jinping dramatically tightening political controls, it is unclear how meaningful the changes would be, analysts said.
“They can always backtrack since it’s vague and enforcement is sometimes lax, but given the current climate, it seems to be in line with the increasing crackdown on press and Internet freedom,” said Lokman Tsui, an expert in media and technology policy at Chinese University of Hong Kong.
China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, which issued the draft rules, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The proposed revisions to domain-name regulations are the latest in a series of recently adopted or suggested rule changes that provide legal justification for Beijing’s intensifying campaign to fortify the country’s Internet against what the Communist Party sees as unwanted foreign influences.
In January, the Cyberspace Administration of China issued draft rules requiring news services to remove any content that failed to “embrace the core values of socialism and safeguard national and public interests.” The next month, MIIT and the country’s publications regulator jointly issued new regulations banning companies with foreign ownership of any kind from engaging in online publishing.
While Chinese censors already block foreign content or entire websites online, the new rules are a necessary intermediate step along the way to a more complete law governing content on the Internet, said Zhu Wei, an Internet scholar at the China University of Politics and Law, who advises the government on technology policy.
The effort is being driven by growing concern over threats to China’s national and ideological security, in particular terrorism and the influence of nonsocialist ideologies, Mr. Zhu said.
“I remember a while back stumbling across terrorist video footage of a beheading. This spread to China’s Internet from abroad. China doesn’t have this sort of thing,” he said.
He didn’t describe where the ideological threats came from.
Chinese officials and state media have repeatedly accused “hostile foreign forces,” including foreign media, of encouraging government critics and attempting to stir up unrest in an effort to overthrow the Communist Party.
Mr. Zhu said the rules would be hard to implement without changes. He pointed as an example to a provision that bans Chinese service providers from redirecting users to “illegal information services.” Such a rule could theoretically trip up local search companies such as Baidu Inc. because even highly controlled search results might contain hidden links to websites abroad, he said.
Baidu spokesman Kaiser Kuo said the company would examine the regulations and provide comment to the government if necessary.
The new rules, which are open for public comment until April 25, have caught the attention of foreign business groups, some of whom warned that the restrictions risked further isolating China.
“China’s government is seeking more opportunities for Chinese companies to develop markets overseas,” said Jake Parker, Vice President of China Operations for the U.S.-China Business Council. “Policies of this sort will do nothing to advance that goal and will instead make its economy and businesses less integrated into the global marketplace.”
China’s Ministry of Commerce didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
The draft regulations were intended to block access to terror groups or organizations at odds with Chinese government policy, not websites belonging to foreign businesses, said Mr. Zhu, adding that “a path will be found” for foreign companies.
He said the measures were intended as a stopgap until Internet governance is more in line with China’s interests. “The trend obviously is for the Internet to be shared and governed by all, meaning everyone operates according to the same principles, but we’re not there at present,” he said.