The Chinese government has found a way to enforce its draconian policy of web censorship across the globe: it has enlisted the aid of US-based tech companies.
XYZ.com is a Los Angeles-based company that registers web domains. These are the addresses you see in your browser; www.breitbart.com, www.google.com, www.facebook.com, and so forth. According to the Wall Street Journal, the company has just agreed to prohibit web addresses that fall foul of China’s 12,000-strong list of blacklisted words.
According to the WSJ:
The registry says China has given it 12,000 words to ban from its Web addresses, which include the suffixes .xyz, .college, .rent, .protection and .security. Anyone in any country in the world will be denied use of these domains if their names include words that trouble Beijing’s repressive leaders.
XYZ argues that “no parties have any legitimate reason to object to the introduction of this service.” But they have been challenged by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), who condemned the company’s proposal. In a blog post, the EFF said:
xyz.com’s casual acceptance of Chinese censorship of its domain space provides an open invitation to China and other governments to apply more pressure on registrars and on ICANN itself to further limit the expression of speech through domain names. In the long term, this will only further erode the ability for users to express themselves online, by registering domain names that describe or complement speech hosted at that domain, or are a short and pithy speech act in themselves.
Like all domain name companies, XYZ had to submit an application to the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which manages the web’s domain name system. Unless ICANN grants permission, XYZ will not be allowed to implement its new system.
Until recently, ICANN blocking China’s attempt at global web censorship would have been a no-brainer. It was set up by the US Department of Commerce, and until recently, the DoC’s ongoing contract with the corporation was assumed to ensure continued American stewardship of the open web.
At the time, the progressive magazine The New Republic ran the following headline: “No, Barack Obama Isn’t Handing Control Of The Internet Over To China.” The article assured readers that “the plausible ways in which ICANN could trample free speech are narrow.”
Others weren’t so convinced. At the Wall Street Journal, L. Gordon Crovitz (who is no doubt enjoying some bittersweet schadenfreude today) called the move “Obama’s Bungled Internet Surrender.” Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, said that “every American should worry about Obama giving up control of the internet to an undefined group.”
A former senior advisor in the Bush Administration, Christian Whiton, went even further. “This is Obama’s equivalent of Carter’s decision to give away the Panama Canal — only with possibly much worse consequences,” he told The Daily Caller. “U.S. management of the internet has been exemplary and there is no reason to give this away.”
China’s attempt to censor the internet by pressuring private companies reflects a new strategy on the part of authoritarian regimes, one noted by Freedom House’s annual report on web freedom. Instead of their old strategy of censorship on a national level, authoritarian regimes are now putting pressure on global web companies to remove or censor content on their behalf.