Internet authorities in China have set up a new family of Chinese-language alternatives to .com and other popular Internet address domains. It's a move that bypasses the U.S.-sponsored organization that controls address information for the global Internet, and some analysts fear that it could enhance China's ability to censor its citizens' access to the Internet.
The Chinese newspaper People's Daily reported Tuesday that the new system will feature Chinese versions of the existing .cn, .com and .net domains.
"It means Internet users don't have to surf the Web via the servers under the management of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) of the United States," the paper said.
American control of ICANN is a sore point with many foreign governments.
Last year, the United States fended off demands to remove control of ICANN from the Department of Commerce and put it under the auspices of the United Nations. American officials said that China and other countries wanted control of ICANN to censor political and religious information on the Internet.
Some Internet analysts say that by setting up addresses that don't rely on ICANN, China is gradually creating a domestic Internet that will be far more susceptible to censorship than the U.S.-controlled version.
"Chinese users in theory right now will still have access to both," said Michael Geist, Internet law professor at the University of Ottawa. But over time, Geist said, the Chinese could completely disconnect from the ICANN system and route all internal Internet traffic through their own domain servers.
"It's now a Chinese-controlled system," Geist said. The process could make it easier for Chinese censors to block out "subversive" information from outside the country, he said.
But former Stanford University professor Subramanian Subbiah said that the new policy is driven by the desire to make the Internet more accessible to Chinese speakers.
Subbiah, cofounder of I-DNS.net, a Singapore company that sells Internet domain names created in non-Western writing systems, said that China lost patience with ICANN, which has not made Internet addresses available in Asian writing systems. Chinese Internet users can type a website address in Chinese, until they get to the Internet domain, such as .com or net.
Those letters must be typed in Roman letters, because ICANN has not adopted a technology for recognizing the words in Chinese, Arabic, Korean, or other non-Western languages.
"ICANN sat around for eight or nine years, with everybody begging them," Subbiah said. "Go learn English, they said at first." So he began working with Chinese officials about two years ago to use I-DNS technology to solve the problem.
Subbiah said that censorship probably has nothing to do with China's announcement because the Chinese already control the ICANN-linked root servers inside their country and are censoring Internet information.
"They're doing it today; they'll be doing it tomorrow," he said.
ICANN spokesman Andrew Robertson declined to comment on the Chinese announcement, saying that ICANN officials needed more time to confirm the accuracy of the news report and consult with Chinese authorities.
Apart from concerns over censorship, disconnecting China from the standard Internet could cause a number of problems. Chinese traveling outside their country would not be able to access Internet sites using the Chinese domains, because the ICANN-based Internet would not recognize the Chinese addresses. A user would need special software to route queries to the Chinese network.
A new Chinese version of the .com Internet domain could cause a replay of the online gold rush of the late 1990s, said Jonathan Zittrain, professor of Internet governance at Oxford University. "It'll be fascinating to see whether global companies feel compelled to register Chinese-language counterparts to existing .com names," he said. If the Chinese version of .com catches on, Zittrain added, ICANN would have to decide whether to connect to the Chinese domain.
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