by Eric Bangeman
Update: A day after this story broke, a spokesperson from the China Internet Network Information Center contradicted the CINIC's earlier statement, saying that China has not created any new top-level domains. Instead, the new Chinese-character domain names sit below the TLDs. ICANN confirmed it, saying that the original China Ministry of Information Industry press release was misinterpreted by the People's Daily. According to CINIC, China currently has no plans to create a "new root server or split off from the Internet."
Original story: ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, has been in charge of the Internet's TLD (Top Level Domain) system since its creation. Chartered by the US Department of Commerce, the fact that the nonprofit corporation is based in the US has led to concerns about the US having too much control over the Internet. That in turn has resulted in the UN visiting the topic of Internet control on a number of occasions. The position of the US has long been "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." China believes that the current system is broken, and is doing something to fix it.
In a move that could have enormous ramifications for how the Internet works, the government of China has decided to bypass ICANN altogether and set up its own set of TLDs and domain name servers. In addition to the .cn TLD, China will have three new Chinese-character TLDs equating to "dot China," "dot com," and "dot net." The Ministry of Information Industry describes the changes this way:
Under the new system, besides "CN", three Chinese TLD names "CN", "COM" and "NET" are temporarily set. It means Internet users don't have to surf the Web via the servers under the management of [ICANN] of the United States.
Ah, another nation clawing its ways out from under the icy clutches of American imperialism!
These new TLDs will only be available through Chinese networks. Given the existence of the "Great Firewall of China" and the country's desire to keep certain parts of the Internet off limits to its citizens, anything that keeps Chinese surfers reliant on the country's infrastructure is a good thing in the eyes of the government.
China's decision to unilaterally implement a new set of TLDs has grave implications for the openness of the Internet. It sounds like a cliché, but one of the Internet's strengths is its openness. Under its current structure of TLD and root server management, an Uzbekistani with a 'Net connection can read the latest gossip about Britney Spears and a US rugby union fan can learn about trials of proposed rules changes being conducted in South Africa. In short, the current system appears to be working fine, at least when it comes to ICANN's stated mission of ensuring "universal resolvability so that all users of the Internet can find all valid addresses."
Over the past year or so, concerns have been growing over ICANN's control of the TLD system. Last year, ICANN announced it was implementing a .xxx TLD for voluntary use by adult sites. After receiving around 6,000 e-mails protesting the creation of the new, easily-filtered domain, the US Department of Commerce asked ICANN to put the brakes on .xxx, which has yet to be added as a TLD. International critics of ICANN pointed to that incident as evidence of how easily ICANN can be swayed by the US government.
At last fall's World Summit of the Information Society, the discussion about who should be responsible for regulating the Internet's infrastructure grew heated. Proposals for a reconfiguration of the governance structure, perhaps under the auspices of the UN's International Telecommunications Union (ITU), failed to gain any widespread consensus. Instead, the status quo was upheld and a new Internet Governance Forum (IGF) was created and tasked with the mission of "discussing public policy issues related to key elements of Internet Governance."
Would China have made this decision if the Internet was "run" by the ITU or some other non-US, intergovernmental agency? It seems likely. China appears doggedly determined to go its own way when it comes to technology standards. In the past, it has proposed its own wireless networking standard, which gained few fans outside of the Chinese government. More recently, it announced its own entry into the next-gen optical disc wars. China does have a point when it comes to ICANN's slowness to support non-Roman characters in TLDs, but creating its own, parallel system is not ultimately going to help things out.
The larger question is the effect China's decision will have on the Internet's infrastructure. If China truly intends to administer all of its own TLDs and operate its own root servers, it could mark the beginning of Internet fragmentation. It opens up the possibility of multiple versions of the same domain, each with its own root server. Ultimately, that's not going to help solve any of the current problems with the 'Net.