Free speech in face of '.cn' TLD crackdown

Country's restrictions on ".cn" top level domain names may curb registration of scam domains, but not likely to stifle user-generated content, says analyst.
Written by Victoria Ho, Contributor

China's recent restrictions on ".cn" domain names may prove effective at curbing the registration of scam domains, but will unlikely reign in user-generated content, said an analyst.

The Chinese government in December said it would stop individuals from registering Web sites ending in ".cn", reserving the country code top-level domain for registered businesses. Registrants would have to apply in person, not online, and produce a business license and the individual applicant's identification.

The government-controlled domain regulator, the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), said in reports this move was conducted in an effort to crack down on illegal domains in the country, in particular those carrying pornographic and spam content.

John Brand, Hydrasight's research director, said in an e-mail interview the restriction would likely have a "substantial effect" on the proliferation of scam domains, which are primarily set up to redirect traffic and harvest e-mail lists for phishing attacks.

"By removing one of the mechanisms that these scammers use, to trick others into doing their dirty work for them, it may have a considerable effect on spam, phishing, pornography and other Internet related by-products," Brand told ZDNet Asia.

China's move follows the country's various efforts at censoring Web content, included anti-pornography campaigns, alleged blocking of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and the controversial Green Dam-Youth Escort content-filtering initiative.

User-generated content to remain free
Reports have suggested the tightened restrictions on domains is the government's attempt at creating a whitelist of approved sites is a bid to tighten its control over the country's Net access, and may threaten the country's access to free speech over the Internet.

Brand said the impact on free speech may be felt by individuals and startups looking to register ".cn" domain names, but said user-generated content would remain largely free on platforms such as social networking sites.

The government's domain restrictions place responsibility of content "firmly back on businesses and the Web sites that support them", he said. "In effect, these laws simply provide a more substantial target for the administration of content filtering."

"We would suggest this move will not have a substantial negative effect on user-generated content," the analyst said, noting that user-generated content would adapt to the legal circumstances in China.

"Similarly, no government has yet managed to completely control user-generated content through hard-printed copy," Brand said. "The technology is highly adaptable and it would be almost impossible to completely control it without completely shutting it down."

Startups, however, may need to reconsider establishing user-driven content rich Web sites, with the restrictions in mind, he said.

He added that the Internet as developed into a "mesh of content", with URLs decreasing in importance. While domain names may identify a publisher, targeting domain name registration is only a partially effective means to control content, he said.

Singapore backs country domains
Singapore's domain regulator, SGNIC (Singapore Network Information Center) said in an e-mail to ZDNet Asia that it encourages the adoption of ".sg" domain names among both businesses and individuals, adding that .sg-branded sites could help businesses better identify themselves with Singapore users and potential customers.

The SGNIC spokesperson also said businesses needing to register a ".com.sg" domain would have to provide proof it is a registered commercial entity.

Personal Web sites are denoted by a ".per.sg" domain name. As of May last year, there were 683 ".per.sg" domains and 65,141 ".com.sg" domains, out of a total 107,890 domains hosted on the ".sg" top level domain, according to SGNIC's Web site.

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