So where do I register ethanzuckerman.中国?

There’s an extremely cryptic story posted on The People’s Daily Online about an interesting change to the Chinese domain name system. The article announces:

A new Internet domain name system will take effect as of March 1 in China.

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 the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) of the United States.

It’s a little tricky to know how to read that little bit of anti-ICANN triumphalism. Does this mean that China is introducing new top level domain names, using Chinese characters, that are alternatives to the .com, .net and .cn TLDs? Or does this suggest that China is going to begin running a rival root nameserver that has authority over .com, .net and .cn domain names, potentially in conflict with existing ICANN-affiliated rootservers?

It’s worth taking a close look at an earlier People’s Daily Online story, “Microsoft supports Chinese domain names”:

Chinese can apply Chinese domain name for searching enterprises and departments that they want online from 2006. Microsoft’s IE7 browser supports “Chinese.cn”, which signals that Internet will greet the age of all-new Chinese domain name, said Liu Zhijiang, an official with the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) on Thursday in Beijing, according to China News Service.

In other words, the change occuring tomorrow appears to be support for new TLDs (top level domains), written in Chinese, not Roman, characters. In an email sent to colleagues earlier today, Rebecca MacKinnon translated the Chinese original of the People’s Daily article. She reports:

For those who read Chinese the critical paragraph is here (corresponding to paragraph 4 in the English article):

同时,CNNIC的相关负责人还向记者澄清了外界的一些说法。昨天有消息称,信产部将新增“中国”、“公司”和“网络”3个中文顶级域名。对此,CNNIC相关负责人刘志江解释:“这3个域名早在2002年就已被增加,上述说法不准确。”

What this shows is that the Chinese are definitely NOT establishing alternative .COM’s and .NET’s. The way in which the People’s Daily article was translated into English is deceptive.

…what they are doing is establishing new Chinese-language domain names, 中国 (which means “china”), 公司 (which means company), and网络 (which means “net”).

In other words, Chinese users who enter .com addresses will still be visiting the same servers as American or European users entering the same addresses. But those who type in .公司 addresses will use Chinese-hosted nameservers independent of ICANN to resolve these addresses.

This isn’t a huge development technically – there have been “experimental” nameservers for years that have supported top level domains that ICANN hasn’t supported (like .xxx) – but it is a pretty dramatic development in terms of internet governance. Much of the discussion at the World Summit on the Information Society focused on ways to create a domain name system independent of ICANN, which is percieved by some as being US-controlled… despite ICANN’s international board membership. China has now gone ahead and created three new TLDs that will only work for users in China. Type 中国.公司 into your web browser outside China and it will probably not resolve. The same domain name in China likely will resolve as of tomorrow.

Will non-Chinese companies bother registering .公司 domains to point Chinese users to their sites? Or will this be part of the further split between the multinational and the Chinese internets? Will Chinese internet users favor .公司 sites over .com sites?

What’s important to note is that CNNIC is not – apparently – hijacking .com and .net, leading to situations where Chinese DNS servers might point “google.com” to a server owned by Baidu. Given the cryptic nature of the People’s Daily story and the current sinophobic mood in the US, I expect to see multiple blog posts to that effect. If that were true – which I doubt – we’d be looking at a pretty serious trade conflict between the US and China and heavy lobbying by US companies for trade sanctions. Instead, I think we’re seeing a continued attempt by Chinese internet companies and the Chinese government to create a Chinese-language Internet that’s separate from the multinational internet, now to the point where it has its own China-specific top level domains. Which is pretty interesting in and of itself…

Rebecca’s got her take on the situation here.

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7 Responses to So where do I register ethanzuckerman.中国?

  1. Pingback: MemeFirst

  2. Ntwiga says:

    It seems to me that this raises a different sort of question:

    China is effectively signalling that they think that they can generate enough content and usage within the Chinese domain that it does not concern them that the rest of the world would not be able to access these sites.

    So, MemeFirst makes a valid point, the Chinese have called Sterling’s bluff but not in the sense that he and the rest of the world expected.

    This question has always traditionally been framed in the context of “who will manage top level resources since whomever manages those manages the net”.

    What the Chinese have done is say, well, we have our internal resources that we want to manage for ourselves and we constitute a large enough market and space with our own lingo that we need to do this for ourselves anyway since no one else understands and is willing to work on this problem that is specific to us. So, we will go ahead and solve it for ourselves.

    The new question now becomes “how does the rest of world connect to these China only resources?”. The main set of people outside China who would be interested in these domains are people who can read and write Chinese and it would be pretty straighforward to manage access for this group using some type of gateway arrangement.

    Might be me oversimplfying things though.

    One things for certain though ICANN is on the way out now. The Koreans, Japanese and various Asian/Indian sub-groups who do not the Roman alphabet are going to be doing this real soon too.

  3. Sterling says:

    1) I like that we’re calling this “Sterling’s bluff”.

    2) Unless I’m mistaken, these new Chinese TLDs could easily be aliased to Roman TLDs by other root nameservers. So “.中国” could be represented, perhaps, by “.ccn” or something similar.

    3) Whether .中国 resolves outside China is something that the Chinese will need to settle both internally and with outside providers.

    4) As long as the PRC does not also propagate a new protocol (i.e. something to replace http), all .中国 TLD sites should also be accessible via IP address.

    5) The real issue here is that China has ended its adherence to global internet standards.

  4. Ethan says:

    Ntwiga, I think you’re absolutely right – this is a signal that China believes it’s possible to create a Chinese internet independent of existing companies and institutions. Sterling’s correct – you’ll be able to reach these sites via IP address… but when’s the last time you typed an IP address into your browser. Unless ISPs around the world point to these alternative name servers, these new Chinese domains – whether or not they’re mapped into roman characters – are likely to be unread by non-Chinese internet users.

  5. Sterling says:

    This actually gives us the opportunity to have some fun. The diplomatic license plate code in the U.S. for the Soviet Union was “FC”. All Soviet diplomats drove around in cars that had “FC” written on the plate, which drew smiles from everyone who saw it pass and thought of the [cough] Friendly Communists [/cough] within. So we could always map .中国 to .CMF, for our Chinese Mainland Friends. Heh.

  6. Pingback: Steve Ntwiga Mugiri » Archives » CIRC ’suspends’ itself from ICANN

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