China opens up to e-tail

The .cn domain will be open to non-Chinese businesses for the first time this week, opening up a potentially massive new e-commerce market

On 16 March, businesses outside China will be able to register .cn domain names for the first time ever -- providing Western e-tailers the opportunity to gain access to the country's vast and rapidly growing online population.

China currently has 56.6 million citizens online -- a figure which represents just 5 percent of the total population. However, the China Internet Network Information Centre (CNNIC) predicts the number of Chinese internet users will jump 46 percent to 86.3 million people by the end of the year -- an untapped resource which few e-tailers will be prepared to miss out on. Furthermore China's ecommerce market, currently valued at $500m per year, is projected to expand to $23bn within three years.

As such, Jennie-Marie Idler, European general manager of NeuStar Registry Services, which has partnered with the Chinese authorities to handle the registration process, told that her company is expecting huge demand for the domains.

While companies cannot take up the domains until 16 March, Idler believes major e-tailers, such as Amazon and eBay, will already be involved in the pre-registration queuing process along with thousands of other businesses.

Idler predicts companies offering IT, including hardware and software, will be among the most common kinds of businesses showing interest in establishing a .cn presence. Consumer goods will also feature heavily in the ecommerce boom according to Idler.

"This kind of opportunity doesn't come along every day," she said. "These companies are going to want to be involved."

However, some companies may have reservations about launching into an online market which has gained negative press in recent years for heavy censorship and tight government control.

Most notably, many companies will be aware of the problems experienced last year by search giants Altavista and Google. Both sites were blocked by the Chinese authorities who believed their powerful search capabilities were being abused by people looking for information deemed inappropriate by the Communist government.

But Idler is not anticipating problems with censorship with the rollout of these new domains, in part because of the vast number which will be registered, making close scrutiny impossible.

She said: "The Chinese government does reserve the right to delete domain names if they believe they are offensive or anti-Chinese. However, so far only one out of 15,000 in the pre-registration queues has been deemed to be inappropriate. It is not going to be a closely monitored space."

Companies wishing to register domains will have to qualify in a fashion similar to those registering .biz domains. They will be required to prove they have a business interest in China -- eliminating the threat of cybersquatting, where enterprising individuals buy-up popular domain names. Only where a firm has a clear business case for using the domain will they be allowed to register it.

While NeuStar doesn't set retail prices for domain names, Idler believes they are likely to sell for between £40 and £150.

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