The new CEO of internet oversight body the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is in China this week as part of on-going efforts to reach out to the world’s biggest online population at a time when the country’s crackdown on web freedoms has reached new heights.
RosettaNet founder Fadi Chehade, who succeeded Rod Beckstrom last September, is in Asia for the first time in his new role ahead of ICANN’s 46th meeting in Beijing in April – its first in China since 2002.
China is undoubtedly at the centre of ICANN’s plans to expand and internationalise the internet and so it should be, given that the country now accounts for over half a billion net users and according to the UN will outnumber English language users by 2015.
ICANN made available Chinese language Top Level Domains (TLDs) with the .中国 extension last October and has received scores of new applications from the country for its new generic TLD push which could theoretically extend the domain name landscape to almost any suffix in any language.
However, Chehade’s visit can also be seen in context of ICANN’s on-going efforts to devolve its decision making to regional centres in a bid to head off criticism.
China, along with Russia, Brazil and other emerging nations has been a vocal critic of the Los Angeles-headquartered non-profit’s perceived US bias. At a UN conference in Dubai in December they called for an international treaty to establish the ITU as the pre-eminent internet oversight body – a call which forced the US, UK and others to walk out of the conference without signing.
Chehade told Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua ahead of his trip that the body was trying to get “closer to the people we are serving”.
"I've also been announcing that ICANN is going to be shifting a lot of its US centric operations to operations that are distributed around the world, including Asia,” he added. “So we will be moving part of our core operational functions from Los Angeles to Asia soon, some will be in China, some will be in Singapore and other places.”
While an inclusive approach based on continued dialogue is certainly a sensible and necessary strategy for ICANN in China, the ruling Communist Party’s hard line views on net regulation stand some way from Chehade’s belief in an internet which is “open”, “fair” and a “truthful resource for everybody in the world”.
China’s suppression of online freedoms inside the Great Firewall is increasingly having the effect of separating the “Chinternet” from the rest of the world and hurting international business operations there.
In an American Chamber of Commerce Business Climate Survey from last year, three-quarters of respondents found that slow or unstable internet access – which is often caused by China's ubiquitous web filtering system – “affects their ability to efficiently conduct business in China”.
The authorities have also been cracking down on Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) – the means by which many business users in China gain access to blocked sites – with tweaks to the Great Firewall designed to “learn, discover and block” the OpenVPN protocol.
VPN Instructions has useful info on the state of play at the moment in China. ®