Chinese Domains Alter Net Governance Landscape

My weekly Law Bytes column (Toronto Star version, BBC version, homepage version) looks back at last week’s announcement of changes to the Chinese domain name system. While Chinese officials have clarified that this does not involve an alternate root, I argue that the developments are significant since they reinforce the mounting frustration with ICANN’s failure to develop multilingual domain names. Moreover, China’s ability to implement its own IDN system without ICANN support is likely to serve as a model for many other countries around the world.
The Chinese development is also noteworthy because it works.  Researchers at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom report that Chinese ISPs recognize the new domains. This is not as simple as it sounds – ISPs around the world are accustomed to looking solely to ICANN for authoritative domain name information. The Chinese domains require ISPs to implement additional functionality so that the new domains resolve to the correct address in the same fashion as conventional dot-com domains.  There have been attempts to develop similar domain name alternatives in the past with several initiatives launched by the private sector.  Despite some modest successes, no one has ever come close to creating a national alternative that is functional for 110 million Internet users.

With an alternate IDN system in place, it would relatively simple for China to migrate toward a true "national root" or alternate Internet since a system is now in place for their ISPs to work with domain name alternatives.  Given its continued interest in censoring certain Internet content, a national root that excludes large chunks of the existing global Internet may ultimately emerge as an attractive option to Chinese lawmakers.

Should that come to pass, last week will be remembered as the beginning of the end of ICANN’s exclusive grip on the governance of the Internet’s domain name system.


  1. Paul Berry says:

    You are correct, the Chinese IDN system could be used as a model for other countries, however ICANN really should implement this now and run it along side their own ccTLD system.

    Countries already have control over their own ccTLD’s… although in many cases they have (somewhat sadly) delegated this to private companies, though the point remains, the authorities information for a domain listed under a ccTLD comes from that countries regional registry, not from ICANN. ICANN merely provide authoritative pointers to that regional registry.

    There is no technical reason that ICANN could not create these domains, and direct them to the appropriate regional registry in the same way they currently do with ccTLD’s.

    Of course there are several software systems that need to be updated for users and servers worldwide for this to work, but such patches are easy to create and distribute, and most of the world could be blissfully unaware that it is able to create, use and browse these domains in a very, very short space of time.

    I found your blog via boingboing.

    As I am sure is true of lots of other forums, there was some talk about the implicationsof all the stuff going on with ICANN at Ethan Zuckermans’ blog that you might find interesting. I made some comments on this at Ethan’s blog and on mine in which I pretty much came to the same conclusion about ICANN’s fate.