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):
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.