A single move in the world of the Chinese Internet can trigger a tsunami in the global context. On March 28, 2016, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) announced the Internet Domain Name Management Rules (Opinion-Seeking Revision Draft), and officially solicited opinions from the public. The overseas media had a field day over this announcement and I was asked for interviews by a few of them.
The questions on everybody’s lips were: Will all businesses, domestic or international, need to register their domain names from inside China if they want to operate a website in the country? If a website has not procured its domain from inside China, will it no longer be accessible from within the country’s borders? Article 37 is the section that has caused much alarm. It states:
“Domain names engaging in network access within the borders shall have services provided by domestic domain name registration service bodies, and domestic domain name registration management bodies shall carry out operational management. 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.”
My predictions for the consequences of Article 37 are as follows. Firstly, it will not affect those surfing the global Internet. Secondly, it will not affect those using services provided by the global Internet. Thirdly, it will affect business websites whose servers are set up in China. In particular, it will affect websites which have a uniform domain name globally yet have servers that are set up inside China. Those websites which have an independent domain name inside China will be less affected.
As for the dismay expressed by the American media, my opinion was that we should not over-react to the new rules. I firmly believe that there will not be any tremendous change to the Chinese Internet. For example, the normal surfing of overseas websites should not be a problem. A domain name system should guarantee the inter-connectivity of the global Internet, otherwise the Internet will fragment into pieces. If this fragmentation happens, both China and the US will become the biggest casualties. Therefore, according to the wordings of the new rules, only large corporate websites that need to conduct business inside China will come under the jurisdiction of the new rules and will see some changes. The majority of normal company websites, personal websites, and small webpages will not be affected. I believe that the management of the Chinese Internet as a whole will remain open. The main pressure will be on websites that have a huge impact on society and which can mobilize people on a large scale. The management of these websites will be tighter, their daily operations will be optimized, and the sovereignty of these websites will be strengthened. However, these websites are in the minority, and most other websites will not be affected. The reason is that if the Chinese Internet closes itself off, China’s development will be the most adversely affected, certainly not these websites. As the driver and catalyst of China’s development and innovation, an open Internet is the lifeline of the continued dynamism in society and the economy. Any move that pushes China into a closed world will only result in self-hurt and self-injury.
The next day I read the news reported in the overseas media. On March 29, the Chinese website of The Wall Street Journal published an article titled “China Seeks More Legal Muscle to Block Foreign Websites.” The introduction of the article stated: “China is considering new Internet rules that would pressure service providers to cut off access to foreign websites. The proposed rules would prohibit the country’s Internet service providers from allowing connections to websites with domains not registered within China.”
On March 30, the Chinese website of The New York Times flashed the headline: “Beijing Seeks to Tighten Reins on Websites in China.” The gist of the article was: “If the rule applies to all websites, it will have major implications and will effectively cut China out of the global Internet. By creating a domestic registry for websites, the rule would create a system of censorship in which only websites that have specifically registered with the Chinese government would be reachable from within the country.” I was interviewed by this newspaper, but it did not publish my comments. I guess I was too objective in my opinions? What I said would be unsensational and not provocative at all. In comparison, the Associated Press was more objective in its article titled “China Drafts New Rules for Improved Management of the Internet.” The end of the article carried my views, that is, it is believed that China will seek more control over the Internet but the country will definitely not close itself off to the world. Any effort that attempts to close up the Chinese Internet will result in the same damage for both China and the US. This article was more balanced in its approach, and was not in the business of scare-mongering.
On March 30, the MIIT responded to the many questions through the China News Service. The ministry said that the media had misunderstood some of the wordings of the new rules. The rules are not in conflict with the domain name system used globally. The relevant section of the new rules requires that websites that engage in network access within China’s borders to use a domain name that is registered within the country. It does not involve websites that engage in network access outside of China, and it will not stop users from visiting these websites. Also, it will not affect foreign companies’ normal conduct of business in China.
This response proved that my comments were correct. The official explanation allayed the fears of the overseas media for the moment. However, this incident shines the spotlight on various issues: the tendency of the US media to over-react on and distort news about China’s management of the Internet; the unjustified fear of foreign businesses over the connectivity of the Chinese Internet and the global Internet; the lack of communication and consultation between the authorities and interested parties in the process of policy making; and the lack of an effective communications channel between the government and the local and foreign media, such that the government is not able to pre-empt any issue and can only be retroactive in its approach.
In the process of policy making, the government should include the participation of interested parties as early as possible. There should be open participation as early as at the drafting stage of the regulations.
The cause of all these problems is that the US is not really understanding China, and China has yet to understand the US too. More importantly, the world needs to really know China, and China needs to really know the world. The misconceptions arising from both sides are the cause of much strife and bitterness. It is not a simple resolution as to who is right and who is wrong.
Due to many complicated reasons, China and the US differ greatly in their perception and management of the Internet, sometimes finding themselves in opposite camps. The issues could be due to competition and conflicts of interest, but most of the problems could have stemmed from a lack of proper communication. There are many differences in the way China and the US manage the Internet, and the most obvious of which is network sovereignty.
Network sovereignty is the core of China’s Internet management policy and philosophy, yet it is in direct opposition to the idea of “Internet freedom” propagated by the US. This ideological difference may never be resolved, but the practical differences may not be too hard to iron out.
For example, network sovereignty is not just a notion, but a real issue. If we discard network sovereignty, it would be impossible to manage the global Internet. Who will build the infrastructure? Who will fight the network criminals? Who will coordinate the war against terrorism? All these can only be accomplished by a government with the right to rule and these are its responsibilities. Without network sovereignty, we cannot achieve anything. However, network sovereignty is not the same as the sovereignty of a country. The spirit and principles of state sovereignty are applicable to the Internet, but network sovereignty is totally different from state sovereignty which is based on boundaries and ideologies. In actual fact, network sovereignty is neither totally dismissible as proclaimed by the US government, nor is it as real and distinctive as emphasized by some parties in China. The most appropriate understanding of network sovereignty is that it is like the network society, which is a fact and is in obvious existence. However, they are both new-fangled things and are in the process of rapid development and change. They are still immature and cannot be clearly understood at the moment. Instead of fighting over it, China and the US would do better to sit down and work it out between them. They could lay out the definitions together and sort out common concerns such as tackling nefarious network crimes that are taking place across borders or set up a joint mechanism to effectively stem the spread of network terrorism. If the two countries need some time to agree on a set of rules to govern the global Internet, they could in the meantime establish a communications and coordination system that is effective at the international level. This will surely help to prevent much unnecessary misunderstanding and misjudgement.
Although we should not read too much into the new rules on domain names, we should nevertheless look into our own backyards to rectify some problems. In the process of policy making, the government should include the participation of interested parties as early as possible. Currently the government is seeking opinions from the public about the regulations. However, there should be open participation as early as at the drafting stage of the regulations. The domain name system is the core of the global Internet’s infrastructure. It is a “public good” that enables the true connectivity of the global Internet and requires the cooperation of countries all over the world. If China wants to amend the law regarding such an important and external subject, it should have included the interests and suggestions of all relevant parties, in particular foreign businesses and international organizations. This could have been the pivot that tilts the law in China’s favour. Moreover, the wording of Article 37 was indeed questionable. Some of its concepts and definitions are not well-defined and these will inadvertently give rise to misinterpretations. Furthermore, the Article does not say how these new rules will be implemented. This omission is the cause of much worries and doubt felt by foreign businesses. Fortunately, the law is still at the opinion-seeking stage. We should make our opinions known, so that the unreasonable parts can be amended and the unclear parts refined. If the status quo remains, it will raise the bar for local companies who want to expand overseas and also for foreign companies who want to do business in China. Not only will the operating costs of these companies increase, it will also leave room for selective enforcement in the future. I believe that even if the current draft is passed into law, there will be many creative ways to get around it. However, if we can improve the current draft and make it more practical, it would be better than causing unnecessary fear and confusion. In particular, the underlying principles of our Internet regulations should match the underlying principles of the regulations for the global Internet. For example, if like China, all of the 200 odd countries in the world require companies like Google, Facebook, Tencent or Alibaba to register a domestic domain name in each country, then each of these companies will have 200 odd different domain names! We should always bear in mind that the most important thing is a safe and secure Internet, and that we should be able to manage it effectively and properly.
I feel that the American media’s and foreign businesses’ misgivings about the management of the Chinese Internet is uncalled for. It is not normal for big corporations to jump in fear every now and then; it is also against the basic rule of objectivity for news outlets to pick bones over everything. If we ask the question of who has the greatest vested interest here, the answer is obviously China. The country is one of the biggest beneficiaries of the global Internet. It is thus in the best interests of China for it to be deeply engaged with the global Internet and for it to protect the connectivity of the global Internet, no matter now or in the future. In the past, when the Chinese Internet industry was still in its infancy, we were already fully open to the world. Now, when our Internet industry is thriving and starting to go global, is it not a stupid thing to consider closing ourselves off to the world?
This furore over the domain name rules seems to have subsided, but the conflicts and issues it has brought up will remain in the long term. We should reflect on the causes and effects and our own internal problems, so that when the next problem crops up, we can at least be more pro-active in our response.
(This article was originally published in the 21st Century Business Herald. Translated by Chean Chian Cheong.)