The Chinese government could fragment the internet if it pursues new registration rules for online addresses, the US government has warned.
The warning by assistant commerce secretary Larry Strickling and state department ambassador Daniel Sepulveda comes in response to a decision by the Chinese government in March to require all domain names in China to be registered through government-licensed providers based in the country.
China has long had restrictive policies on what people can do online but the new rules, updated for the first time in over a decade, specifically note that any company providing online addresses "shall have the capability to engage in real name verification and users' personal information protection". In other words, every domain name owner will be known personally to the Chinese government.
This approach "runs contrary to China's stated commitments toward global Internet governance processes as well as its stated goals for economic reform," argued Strickling and Sepulveda in a letter make public in a blog post on Monday.
"The regulations appear to create a barrier to access and force localization of data and domestic registration of domain names," they add. "Whether driven by a motivation to increase control over Internet content in China or a desire to increase the quantity of Chinese-registered domain names, these regulations would contravene policies that have been established already at the global level by all Internet stakeholders (including Chinese)."
The letter also warns that the rules have been "interpreted by some" to suggest that "all websites with domain names registered outside China will be blocked, thereby cutting off Chinese Internet users from the global Internet."
Such an approach would "contravene, undermine, and conflict with current policies for managing top level domains that emerge from the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which follows a multistakeholder model in its community-based and consensus-driven policymaking approach," the letter warns.
It concludes with a strong warning about the potential impact: "By creating its own rules for domain name management, China is threatening to fragment the Internet, which would limit the Internet’s ability to operate as a global platform for human communication, commerce, and creativity."
China is an increasingly powerful force on the internet. For every huge Western internet company, China has an equivalent, and in many cases a larger one. Weibo is Twitter; Baidu is Google; Tencent is Amazon; Renren, Facebook; and Alibaba is literally the only reason Yahoo! still exists.
This impact and influence has raised concerns among lawmakers in the US and beyond that the Chinese government may soon start to undermine the internet's very openness.
In recent months, Republican senators have been especially vocal about this risk, particularly given the plan for the US government to hand over control of the internet's critical IANA contract to non-profit Californian corporation ICANN in September, and ICANN's unusual relationship with the Chinese government.
Fears of greater Chinese influence over ICANN have also been fueled by the decision of outgoing CEO Fadi Chehade to act as the front man for the Chinese government new internet governance initiative, the World Internet Conference.
The Obama Administration and ICANN have also been persistently goaded by Wall Street Journal columnist Gordon Crovitz about the influence of the Chinese government and the plans to hand over the IANA contract. Crovitz's columns have been used by Republicans in Congress to raise doubt over the IANA transition, to the extent that secretary Strickling even posted a rebuttal to one of his columns.
China has long taken a different approach to how the internet is handled within the country, even going to the extraordinary step of creating a highly complex country-wide censorship apparatus called the Great Firewall of China.
Its approach has become increasingly popular among other authoritarian regimes, including Russia, which are trying to balance the huge advantages that the internet brings while limiting it extraordinary ability to share information and allow for anonymous criticism (the Arab Spring being a case in point).
The world's governments have long acknowledged that what countries do within their own borders is largely their own business. But in this case, the US government clearly feels that by threatening to systematically prevent the world from communicating with its citizens except on the government's terms, it is pushing that principle too far. ®