Internet

.com? .公司? Who benefits?

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Under the title "China Locks in its Net-Citizenry", Slashdot covers a March 1 press release announcing the licensing of a Singapore company, i-DNS, to register Chinese-language top-level domains (TLD). The Slashdot crowd handles it with the usual sensitivity they show toward things China-related, but the press release itself raises some interesting issues.

Implementation of Chinese-language domain names has been going on for several years. Various ISPs have fudged semi-workable solutions by performing searches on failed DNS requests. Chinese characters in second-level domains now work in many browsers and are issued by many registrars (click to be transported to Peking University), but the TLD remains the latin "cn".

The holy grail is to make it possible to write the entire address in Chinese characters - Peking University would be located at 北京大学。中国. This domain is actually registered and operational, but it requires additional software for most users; browser plug-ins provided by Baidu and others that provide the necessary functionality are reportedly in use by over half of China's online population, according to i-DNS.

According to the registrar, purchasing a domain name on one of the Chinese TLD includes not only the name in simplified characters, but also (a) a traditional character version, and (b) a version with ".cn" tacked on to the end for accessibility purposes. So a ".net" equivalent for Danwei would be the simplified 单位.网络, the traditional 單位.網絡, and the ".cn" 单位.网络.cn.

China, quite naturally, owns the ".cn" TLD, and one could argue that it should control the corresponding ".中国" domain as well. Both the simplified and traditional Chinese equivalents to ".com" and ".net" - ".公司" and ".网络" (".網絡") - are also administered by CNNIC, under the Ministry of Information Industry. For the purposes of domain registration, then, "Chinese language" and "China" are inseperable.

Thus, any registrant, regardless of whether they are catering to an audience in the mainland, the islands, Singapore, or the Chinese diaspora, is required to abide by the same set of rules that govern any media entering mainland China. Sites suspected of promoting cults and feudal supersitition, disruption of social stability, gambling, pornography, disclosure of state secrets, etc., etc. will find it hard to gain approval for their registration (see Article 27).

Some names are totally out of bounds. The domain name search on i-DNS contains the following warning:

Note that for Chinese products, if a particular domain name shows availability for registration, it does not necessarily mean that the name can be purchased as it may be in the list of prohibited names by the Chinese government.
None of the other available scripts (Japanese, Korea, Hebrew, Arabic, and Cyrillic) have such a restriction.

So why register a Chinese TLD? CNNIC provides a helpful list of reasons [translated from the Chinese FAQ]:

1、A domain name especially for Chinese people - easy to use and easy to remember;
2、There is a wealth of Chinese domain names - you can find one satisfactory for you. Registering a .中国 domain automatically grants a .cn domain;
3、When you register for a simplified Chinese domain, you automatically get a traditional domain as well. Registration is simple and fast;
4、Give prominence to your trademarks to reflect your value and position;
5、Service in the Chinese language protects the customers' right to know;
6、Chinese law applies, fully guaranteeing customers' interests;
7、Insure the security of the national domain name system.
The i-DNS press release mentions mixed-script domains such as "我的名字.com", offered by Verisign, but says, "These are neither China-government approved nor widely usable in China." It is unclear to me precisely what is gained by having a government-approved domain name. For many organizations, registration may end up being just one more thing they have to do to protect their brand - they will register a site merely to prevent someone else from infringing on their trademarks.

Or, they may do so as long as they aren't actively in disagreement with the government. The emphasis on brands and customers implies that this formulation of Chinese TLDs is essentially a business proposition rather than a way to simplify the sharing of information in general. Certainly the vast majority of those online who are literate in Chinese live in mainland China, but does that majority then automatically gain a monopoly on the use of the language?

The Slashdot headline has it reversed - tying a language and a script to a single country does not lock its citizens in, but rather locks the rest of the world out.

Links and Sources:
Slashdot story
i-DNS press release and End User Agreement
CNNIC FAQ [English, Chinese], and registration regulations (English)
Technical errors? Contact joel -at- danwei -dot- org.

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