From day one, the Chinese government has wanted to control the Internet content that its citizens are able to receive. Moreover, it has demonstrated that if there is money to be made from the Internet, it wants in on that, too. In a move that seems to combine both desires, Beijing has decreed that only mainland Chinese firms may assign Chinese-language addresses.
The announcement comes one week after U.S.-based VeriSign Inc. began accepting domain names in Chinese, Japanese and Korean scripts.
"Without prior approval, no organization or individual is allowed to manage, provide services for, or act as an agent for Chinese-language domain-name registration," said a notice posted Friday afternoon on the Chinese Ministry of Information Industry's Web site. The ministry bestowed upon the China Internet Network Information Center, or CNNIC, the sole right to oversee registration of Chinese-character domain names, and said that nine domestic Chinese firms would be appointed to act as agents. No foreign companies were included.
According to a Reuters report, CNNIC officials have accused VeriSign of infringing on China's sovereignty and of introducing an inferior standard. State-run media quoted CNNIC officials saying that control over Chinese-character domain registrations is "a matter of China's sovereign rights." They also said that while the CNNIC standard allows the suffixes of a domain name to be in Chinese characters, the foreign standard leaves them in Roman letters.
VeriSign and other foreign Web address firms have already registered thousands of applications, from China and abroad. One foreign firm that had been registering multilingual domain names said that in the first week it had registered 25,000 multilingual domains. California-based Registrars.com said it was charging US$18 per year for each of those registrations.
A few Beijing-based companies reached Friday afternoon were still seeking legal opinions about the Chinese government's likely parameters on this issue. Their confusion is only the beginning of what observers had predicted when VeriSign expanded its services into other languages. Critics had warned that such a foray was premature, because the Internet has yet to establish widely accepted standards for non-English characters.
Meanwhile, it's not the first time that those who rule the Internet in China have jumped to protect domestic loot. At the beginning of the year, the government mandated that all Web sites providing news must obtain approval from officials. Recently, it said it would hold all Internet companies responsible for keeping unofficial news stories off of their sites.
While most Chinese portals had been prepared for these restrictions, the mandates bolstered the position of China's state-run media, giving its bland offerings a better chance to survive in the Internet Economy and maybe even to see some commercial returns. In keeping with these rules, Yahoo Inc. in China signed an agreement a few months ago to use content from the People's Daily. Yahoo referred to it as a tie-up with "the largest and most authoritative media in China." Others describe it as a government mouthpiece. Indeed, the official sites had already been providing most major Chinese portals with content anyway, but such arrangements hadn't necessarily brought in much revenue.
In a separate Internet move, the Chinese government held an auction in September hoping to sell off used parts from failed online businesses. While there were many sellers, there was only one purchase.
The government may find the domain market a bit more lucrative.