China erects barriers to '.cn' domain name ownership

While the tendency for most countries has been gradually to reduce domain name eligibility registration restrictions, China - which is neck and neck with Germany as the most popular country-code top-level domain (ccTLD) - has decided to implement draconian new restrictions for '.cn' domain name registrations.  
Until recently, the '.cn' ccTLD was totally unrestricted and available for registration to all entities, whether local or foreign, companies or individuals. The Chinese government has always sought to encourage domain name registrations, in particular under the '.cn' extension, for example by making it very cheap to register '.cn' domain names for the local population.
However, on December 11 2009 the Chinese registry, CNNIC, announced rather unexpectedly that individuals were no longer allowed to register domain names under the '.cn' ccTLD from December 14 2009. These new rules apparently concern only new domain name registrations - and do not retrospectively cover existing domain names - under all Chinese extensions (eg, '.cn', '', '' and '').
The move was announced a few days after a report by CCTV (China Central Television) criticized CNNIC's domain name registration process. CCTV reported that some registrars were accepting '.cn' domain name applications even though the information submitted by the registrants was incomplete or inaccurate (or even totally fake), which, according to the report, favoured the increase of pornographic websites in the '.cn' domain name space.
It seems that, further to this report, the Chinese government demanded that CNNIC put in place a verification procedure for new domain name registrations, in line with the government's internet clean-up campaign (launched at the beginning of last year), which aims to get rid of pornographic and vulgar content on the Internet.
It is in this context that CNNIC announced that it was no longer accepting '.cn' domain name applications from individuals, both in order to control abuse of '.cn' domain names and to ensure better collaboration with the Chinese government. However, if companies are now the only entities allowed to register '.cn' domain names, they now also have to prove their identity thoroughly by providing CNNIC with a number of documents within five days of the domain name application, after which time it will be cancelled. These documents include:
  • a signed form with the company seal;
  • a company registration certificate;
  • the domain name contact's ID; and
  • notarized translations if these documents are in any language other than Chinese or English.
As far as existing domain name registrations are concerned, registrants should not be required to provide such documentation, although verification of the data in relation to current domain names is likely to take place. Therefore, current registrants are advised to check the accuracy of the information given to CNNIC.
According to CNNIC, these new measures will help "to enhance further the authenticity and accuracy of domain name registration information". The new procedures will enable CNNIC to authenticate registrants more easily and should prevent unscrupulous people from registering domain names using fake or incomplete information to run pornographic and other objectionable websites. However, one may wonder why such radical measures have been put in place, as there are perhaps less drastic ways of monitoring domain name registrations than simply banning registrations to individuals.
In addition, CNNIC has announced that non-Chinese registrars were no longer allowed to register '.cn' domain names for their clients from January 6 2010 in order to allow it time to implement a system for handling all domain name applications.
It seems that CNNIC is having difficulty in handling the heavy provision of registration documentation required under the new system, which is all the more difficult as there does not seem to be a system in place for applications submitted by foreign entities. It has thus fallen behind with the processing of domain name applications, and a new system needs to be put in place, given the number of issues that have arisen.
This new announcement is a second blow, as it effectively means that foreign companies can no longer register '.cn' domain names until such a system is in place. According to the current system, local registrars can offer '.cn' domain name registrations only to the Chinese population, while foreign registrars can offer registrations to all foreign entities under the supervision of the US company Neustar, which co-manages the '.cn' extension with CNNIC. It seems that under the government's pressure, CNNIC may have rushed into implementing new rules whose effects and consequences it did not have time to consider, and this is now temporarily penalizing foreign companies.
Finally, in line with the government's internet clean-up campaign, CNNIC is also taking measures to delete existing domain names that are being used for illegal purposes, in particular those linked to pornographic websites. It has recently launched an online complaint reporting service to encourage internet users to report such domain names.
The '.cn' extension thus seems to be paying the price for its race for popularity. It seems important to reflect on the consequences of banning registrations to individuals and its impact on freedom of expression. The Chinese government's desire to exercise greater control over internet content is also one of the reasons behind Google's recent announcement that it is no longer prepared to filter search results on ''.
Another concern is whether the costs for '.cn' domain name registrations will increase due to the paperwork now involved. As a result of these new developments, it is to be expected that the German ccTLD '.de' will soon fight its way back to the top of the podium, unless a further change in the rules for '.cn' domain names occurs.
David Taylor, Lovells LLP, Paris

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