The year 2009 will not be remembered as the year Chinese censors decided to lighten up. This week, the Chinese agency that oversees the country’s Internet-domain-name registry announced it will limit the system to use by businesses, effectively excluding private citizens from registering new domains. The new rules, which the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) put into place on Dec. 14, are meant to restrict online pornography. But some new-media experts say they may add another tool to the country’s array of Internet controls. “Many believe that the crackdown on porn was just an excuse,” says Isaac Mao, a Chinese blogger and a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. “The real reason has to do with the various goals of Internet censorship, one of which is to curb the individual’s voice.”
Web censorship in China is rarely an all-or-nothing endeavor. When a site begins to carry too many materials or too much commentary that the authorities find objectionable, it will get blocked if based overseas, or highly restricted or possibly closed if it’s based in China. Web users move on to new haunts or find new routes to old ones. But by plugging enough holes and muffling enough dissenting voices, China’s Communist Party curbs online opposition to its rule while still allowing the Internet to be open enough to not dangerously impede commerce.