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New Chinese Requirements for Registration of Domain Names and Websites

March 1, 2010, 5:00 AM

Incidental to Chinese government efforts to crack down on a range of illegal behavior on the Internet, the China Internet Network Information Center (“CNNIC”) issued a notice and other policy statements beginning in mid-December 2009 that require owners of “.cn” domain names to file with their registrars copies of business registrations and identification documents for administrative contacts.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (“MIIT”) has recently issued rules requiring the registration of websites relying on servers located in China, as well as the registration of ISPs offering server connections inside the country.

These new requirements are clearly intended to help ensure that the owners of domain names and operators of websites are traceable in case of legal violations — and thus the requirements may ultimately help to some degree in addressing violations of intellectual property rights on the Internet.

In the meantime, the new requirements require urgent action from domain name and website owners focused on the China market, as the failure to comply could lead to deletion of their domain names or other limitations on their use.

CNNIC Notice

CNNIC issued a notice on December 12, 2009 (the “Notice”), which sets out the new documentary requirements, with the contents clearly intended for local companies rather than foreign. A number of issues relevant to domain name owners who are foreigners arise which have subsequently been addressed through informal explanations by CNNIC provided to the various government-approved registrars that provide domain name registration services to the public.

The Notice requires companies that have registered .cn domain names to provide a copy of their business license to their registrar. Foreign companies can satisfy this requirement by providing a Certificate of Good Standing, a Business Registration Certificate, a Certificate of Incorporation or another equivalent document. The documentation provided should bear a corporate seal or “chop” on the first page. Alternatively, the documentation will need to be notarized and legalized.

The Notice also requires the submission of identification documents for the Administrative Contact, together with an email address, phone number and physical address.

Where the Administrative Contact is a Chinese citizen, a copy of their Identity Card must be submitted. Where the contact is a foreigner, a copy of his/her passport must be submitted.

Parties aware of this new requirement have expressed reluctance to provide their personal details for various reasons. Fortunately, domain name registrars are required to keep this copy confidential, and details are not searchable on the Internet. The requirement may be avoided entirely by specifying a service provider as the Administrative Contact.

The Notice set out a deadline of January 31 for compliance with the above requirements. However, various registrars have indicated that the deadline had been extended, with some indicating the deadline is February 28 and others March 15. Very likely, further extensions will be made available, but it would be prudent to comply as soon as possible. The Notice does not specify the consequences or penalties for failure to comply. However:

  • the failure to comply may result in de-linking of domain names with functioning website servers without prior notice. Furthermore:


  • the transfer of non-compliant .cn domain names to other parties is likely to be prohibited;


  • the renewal of such domain names may be prohibited;


  • “who-is” searches of such domains may be restricted, e.g., the popular Chinese registrar HiChina has already begun blocking off access to details of non-complying .cn domain names, and other registrars may follow suit shortly; and


  • at some point, the failure to comply could result in outright cancellation of non-complying domain names.

Individual Registrants

The Notice addresses only the requirements for the registration of domain names by corporate entities, and not individuals, and locally based registrars are consequently not accepting applications by individuals. Fortunately, at least one registrar — based in Hong Kong – is currently accepting applications from foreign individuals.

News reports have suggested CNNIC is drafting rules that will explicitly permit the registration of .cn domains by individuals, subject to unspecified conditions.

If the future restrictions on registration and ownership of .cn domains by individuals are excessive, foreign domain name owners may need to consider transferring their domains to corporate entities.

CNNIC now appears to be making moves to limit future registration of .cn names to companies registered in the PRC. Incidental to issuance of the Notice, overseas domain name registrars previously approved by CNNIC to register .cn domain names, including IP Mirror, Corporate Domains, Web Commerce, Corporate Service, and others, have been prohibited from offering these services.

Going forward, assuming foreign-based registrars are effectively shut out of providing registration services for .cn domains, companies that continue to use foreign-based registrars to manage their domain names will need to verify whether it will make more sense to transfer responsibility to registrars based in China or Hong Kong.

Registration by Individuals

The CNNIC Notice appears to prohibits foreign individuals from registering .cn domain names through Chinese registrars.

But for the time being, one registrar — Huyi Global (www.8hy.hk), based in Hong Kong — is still accepting applications from foreign companies to register new .cn domain names for foreign companies.

ISP/ICP Registration

In May 2009, the MIIT issued policies and rules requiring the registration of all websites that rely on servers based in the PRC, as well as those connected to .cn domain names that rely on foreign servers. Foreign companies that own .cn domains or otherwise operate websites relying on China-based servers are required to designate an entity in China — which would normally be a subsidiary, a representative office or a distributor — to apply for registration with MIIT. The applicant would then presumably be held accountable for the compliance of the website with Chinese law.

Although not required by the MIIT or CNNIC, all domain name registrars in China have reportedly begun suspending connections between .cn domain names and unregistered China-based servers since December. There have not yet been reports of the unplugging of access between .cn domain names and foreign-based servers — although this could well occur at any time. Website operators are therefore recommended to comply with MIIT registration requirements as soon as possible.

Consideration can be given to switching from PRC to foreign-based ISP servers, although this may reduce the performance and compromise the user experience.

ISP Registration

Finally, MIIT issued a notice in December, also published on CNNIC’s website (http://www.cnnic.net.cn), which requires all ISPs inside China that provide access to servers to register themselves with MIIT. Individual companies that own .cn domain names and rely on PRC-based ISPs are not required to register or take other action under MIIT’s notice. However, to avoid the abrupt interruption of service, website operators are advised to verify that their ISP has undertaken the required registration procedures with MIIT.

Normally, an ISP’s compliance with MIIT registration requirements can be verified where the ISP includes its ISP License number on its website. For the time being, MIIT has not imposed registration requirements for owners of .cn domain names that use server services offered by ISPs located outside the PRC.

Comment

The new rules and policies of CNNIC and MIIT will create a number of inconveniences for foreign companies seeking to register and use their .cn domain names in China.

Meanwhile, the new requirements were clearly intended to assist in government efforts to address pornography, hacking, IP violations, and other phenomenon deemed unhealthy by the authorities. Whether or not the new rules will achieve these goals remains to be seen. But what is clear is that the so-called “Great Chinese Firewall” is now being built higher and stronger.