China has issued new Internet regulations, including what appears to be an effort to create a "whitelist" of approved web sites that could potentially place much of the Internet off-limits to Chinese readers.
The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology ordered domain management institutions and Internet service providers to tighten control over domain name registration, in a three-phase plan laid out on its website (www.miit.gov.cn) late on Sunday.
"Domain names that have not registered will not be resolved or transferred," MIIT said, in an action plan to "further deepen" an ongoing anti-pornography campaign that has resulted in significant tightening of Chinese Internet controls.
Only allowing Chinese viewers to access sites registered on a whitelist would give Chinese authorities much greater control, but would also block millions of completely innocuous sites.
The rules did not specify whether the new measure applies to overseas websites, but local media reported the risk that foreign sites that have not registered could also be blocked.
"If some legal foreign websites could not be accessed because they haven't registered with MIIT, it would be a pity for the Internet which is meant to connect the whole world," the Beijing News said on Tuesday.
Chinese Internet controls currently follow a blacklist strategy, whereby censors block sensitive sites as soon as they discover them. Earlier this summer, MIIT tried to require that all new Chinese computers be shipped with the Green Dam filter software, but partially backed off after an international outcry.
The anti-pornography drive since this summer has also netted many sites with politically sensitive or even simply user-generated content, in what many see as an effort by the Chinese government to reassert control over new media and its potential for citizens sharing information and organizing.
"One interpretation is that all foreign websites would need to register in order not to be blocked in China," said Rebecca MacKinnon of the Journalism and Media Studies Center at the University of Hong Kong.
"These are the folks who brought us Green Dam so anything is possible. They are people with a track record of emitting unreasonable schemes."
The registration requirements could constitute a barrier to trade, if Chinese citizens are prevented from accessing legitimate overseas businesses, added MacKinnon.
China banned a number of popular websites and Internet services in 2009, including Google's Youtube, Twitter, Flickr and Facebook, as well as Chinese content sharing sites, including sites popular for music and film downloads.
Angry Chinese Twitter users flooded a Twitter look-alike service (t.people.com.cn) launched by the official People's Daily on Tuesday, causing it to be immediately shut down.
Many virtual private network, or VPN, services used to get around Web restrictions have also become harder to use from China, while 20 million people living in the frontier region of Xinjiang have been cut off from the Internet and international telephone services since deadly ethnic riots in July.
"What usually happens when suddenly compiled rules appear without warning is that they are rarely enforced. My gut reaction is that this is yet another of those cases," said Beijing-based technology commentator Kaiser Kuo.
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