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China tightens grip with review of personal websites
Published on: 2009-12-16
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China has banned individuals from registering internet domain names and launched a review of millions of existing personal websites in the toughest government censorship drive so far on the internet.

As of Monday, people applying to register a domain name in China must present a company chop and a business licence, the China Internet Network Information Center, a government-backed body, said in a statement.

Internet service providers said they had started to review their client base for potentially fraudulent or “harmful” individually owned sites. The term “harmful” is often used by the government as a catch-all that covers everything from pornography to anti-state activity.

As with many other issues considered sensitive by the government, individual domain name ownership has always been a legal grey area in China.

The government considered twice over the past 10 years whether to explicitly allow personal websites but with no result. So far, however, individuals could simply sign up for domain name ownership on the web. This has now been replaced by the stricter application process outlined in the CNNIC notice.

Individuals are estimated to account for the majority of all registered domain names globally. But China does not disclose domain name statistics by ownership category. According to CNNIC, China had 16.3m domain names as of June this year, 80 per cent of which have the ending “.cn”. The rest use “.org”, “.net” or “.com”.

The move follows a string of other measures to crack down on internet and media content as the government is showing signs of increasing unease, especially over user-generated internet content, which it struggles to control.

Beijing controls the internet through a sophisticated multi-layered system, which includes surveillance on all levels of government but also relies heavily on portals and other sites hosting content to censor on its behalf. This system has been increasingly strained by the fast rise of social media dominated by user-generated content.

Last week, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television closed down a number of video sharing websites, citing copyright violations and lewd content. In the same week, the government said more than 3,000 people had been arrested nationwide for alleged involvement in posting pornographic content on the internet.

Earlier this year, the authorities blocked a number of social media sites, including YouTube, Facebook and Twitter and some of their local clones.

This comes against the background of a broader tightening in the political climate as the country has seen a rise in social unrest, some of which was allegedly organised or promoted through the internet, peaking in ethnic riots in July in Xinjiang that killed almost 200 people, according to the government.

Hu Shuli, the founder and editor of Caijing, China’s most freewheeling news magazine, quit last month following a spat with the magazine’s publisher over commercial strategy and censorship. Last week, the editor of Southern Weekend, another independent publication, was demoted after censors expressed dissatisfaction with a story speculating about personnel changes in the Communist party.

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