Yesterday we learned that the government was cracking down on personal websites, imposing a moratorium on registering personal sites with the ".cn" suffix. The Chinese top-level domain was originally intended to be used exclusively for business sites, but enforcement of the regulations had been lax. Now the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) wants proof that registrants are government-approved and registered businesses before distributing domain names.
A few weeks ago, we had a laugh when we learned the government was paying people to report porn sites. Yet observers expressed concern that the crackdown on inappropriate content could have been masking a suppression of other forms of expression.
And we still haven’t forgotten the "turf war" between the General Administration of Press and Publications (GAPP) and the Ministry of Culture that shut down the popular online game World of Warcraft in China. The game is now in a legal entanglement that may take some time to resolve. Other observers see in this situation more insidious motives – pushing Western games out of the lucrative Chinese computer game market to give domestic games a larger share.
Right now, the the bird’s-eye view reveals a mess. Various government bodies – GAPP, the Ministry of Culture, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), the Ministry of Public Security, and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) – are struggling over who gets to regulate the internet. Meanwhile, internationally popular social networking and video streaming sites like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are blocked, driving internet users to find ways around the blocks. CNNIC is limiting who is allowed to register .cn domain names, so Chinese users are going overseas to register their domain names.
Foreign media outlets are quick to criticize China for perceived censorship, but perhaps foreign internet-based businesses have a more realistic perspective. Knowing that Chinese internet users as consumers have different levels of familiarity and comfort with online shopping, they alter their services and content to gain trust and reach the local market. These businesses understand that Chinese internet users are not digital copies of their counterparts in Western countries. In their constant championing of freedom of expression at all costs in China, many Western media organizations have been unable to see that they are dealing with a different kettle of fish.
Nearly three-quarters of the North American population has internet access, compared with only one-quarter of the Chinese population. Are China’s current policies paternalistic, if not arbitrary and totalitarian? Yes, of course. But does the internet – let alone freedom of expression – have the same historical roots in Chinese society as it does in the West? No, not at all. Seeing some confusion and clashing on policies at least indicates that there is room for discussion and perhaps development as China tries to find some solid ground from which to begin regulating the massive political, social and cultural force that is the internet. Some positive counter-examples include ditching the plan to install Green Dam filtering software on all computers manufactured for the Chinese market, or even that former Caijing editor Hu Shuli is reporting on the news from her own blog. In the long run, we can hope, if not expect, that internet policy will allow for more and not fewer freedoms, just as economic policy has evolved in due course.