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China proposes tighter restrictions on foreign websites

A man checks out the homepage of Google internet search engine in an office in Washington, DC, on February 8, 2011.
Jewel Samad | AFP | Getty Images
A man checks out the homepage of Google internet search engine in an office in Washington, DC, on February 8, 2011.

Foreign websites in China face new restrictions under a proposal that seeks to force internet service providers to block access to everything with a domain registered outside the country.

The draft legislation is the latest in a series of tough measures designed to bolster the so-called Great Firewall, China's online censorship apparatus.

Many foreign websites, including Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and many foreign news websites, are already blocked.

Industry analysts say the rules, disseminated on Monday, fit a new pattern in which the government is making its powers and the limits of dissent more explicit and public rather than denying their existence.

The new rules are part of a set of draft revisions to Chinese regulations on managing internet domain names. Article 37 of the draft states: "For domain names engaging in network access within the borders, but which are not managed by domestic domain name registration service bodies, internet access service providers may not provide network access services."

Experts were still studying the draft rules on Tuesday. Charlie Smith of Greatfire.org, a website devoted to monitoring Chinese online censorship, said the wording appeared to be purposefully vague, which in practice could allow enforcement agencies to do with it what they wished. "I think the language being used is probably not exactly clear and that the authorities have purposely made things unclear and open to interpretation or, as the case may be, misinterpretation" he said.

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It remains to be seen whether the draft law will eventually be implemented, and whether, even if implemented, it will be enforced. Similarly dire sounding laws have been passed recently with no noticeable effect on the already difficult environment for foreign internet companies in China.

One such new law, brought into force this month, handed Beijing draconian powers to stop foreign companies or partly foreign-owned companies from publishing online without approval from the broadcast regulator, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television.

So far, however, according to some foreign publishers and foreign chambers of commerce in Beijing contacted by the Financial Times, no one has been affected by the new law.

Experts say that the directives simply formalize long-held powers the government has rarely hesitated to use in practice: the ability to block online content, whether foreign or domestic.

One foreign owned online publisher who asked to remain anonymous said there had been no contact from the regulator on the new rules, in a break from usual practice. "Instead there has been silence. Its almost eerie. No one has met with us for about six months," they said.