Secrets to Avoiding Web Censorship in China
By Jeff Kim
Large retailers are making strategic e-commerce moves into China today that will greatly impact top line growth and bottom line profits over the next decade. They find themselves in a heated battle to attract Chinese consumers and turn them into loyal customers. In this environment, online retailers simply cannot afford to have their websites blocked or inaccessible. The result can be months of stagnation as well as lost revenue and market share.
Unfortunately, some websites in China are too frequently inaccessible -- either because of failure to meet the PRC government’s content guidelines or inter-network connectivity problems within China. This article will focus on the simple steps that online retailers can take today to avoid these obstacles and ensure continuous availability of their websites in China.
Readers should first understand that the time, effort and expense involved in unblocking a website in China far outweigh the minimal effort required to avoid being blocked in the first place. Therefore, the suggestions that follow are designed to avoid initial blockage.
Remaining in Good Stead with the PRC Government
The PRC central government meticulously monitors websites for unacceptable content on a range of issues such as politics, religion, gambling and culture. The good news for online retailers is that their websites contain fewer opportunities for containing such content than do news and social media sites. However, retailers’ potential for slip-ups in consumer forums, blogs, and/or sales of controversial items (e.g. joke products) remain an area of concern.
Online retailers can take two simple steps to avoid website blockage and the long road to recovery.
Closely Monitor Forums and Blogs
Nearly all blocked websites in China became so by hosting content that does not follow documented government guidelines. By keeping blogs and forums exclusively focused on topics related to retail services and products, online retailers should be able to avoid the primary driver behind blockages. However, mistakes can happen, and somehow or another a rogue blog post or comment may end up as a posting to an e-commerce website.
For this reason, online retailers would do well to put a time delay on blog postings and website comments and dedicate some time to reviewing them prior to live posting. Online retailers should also gauge the value of such forums. In the end, their calculations may reveal that the risks far outweigh the upside benefits of including consumer forums on their sites.
Know Your Business Partners and Their Standing in China
Most IT and business leaders pursuing China strategies are well aware of high-profile website blockage cases, such as those of Google and Twitter. However, the cases that are far less known should concern online retailers. The fact is that some high-profile Cloud, website hosting and content delivery network (CDN) service providers have become blocked from China for delivering unacceptable content on behalf of their website customers.
When a service provider becomes blocked, all websites hosted by that provider become blocked. Prior to signing on with a service provider for China, online retailers should familiarize themselves with the service provider’s track record. More specifically, check the provider’s track record for managing its own operations within China and whether or not its services have been blocked in recent years.
In the case of global infrastructure decisions that include China, elevate the China-specific discussion and customize partner agreements before signing on the dotted line.
Overcoming Inter-Network Disconnects that Make Sites Inaccessible
China’s Internet is a fragmented network made up of multiple telecommunications networks, with no single network operator dominating in all regions. The combination of unpredictable connections between networks and a small number of network traffic exchange points frequently results in tremendous website delays and outages when content must traverse multiple networks. This is a real concern for major retailers. The fact is that 19 different provinces within China have more than 10 million broadband consumers, making high-performance inter-network connectivity difficult to achieve.
To ensure content moves between networks without delay and outages, online retailers must typically pay 300 percent to 800 percent more per month in hosting and network fees to purchase enhanced connectivity. Before spending these sums of money, retailers should first determine the geographic locations within China of their target audience.
This will inform decisions about where to enhance connectivity and prevent over-spending to reach unattractive provinces.
Many online retailers recognize that they don’t yet have a grasp on the exact geographic breakdown of their target market. This has given rise to demand for in-China content delivery network services. By locating content delivery servers within multiple Chinese networks, CDN providers circumvent inter-network connection problems. At the same time, they can expand and contract services between regions for online retailers instantaneously. This provides ultimate flexibility during the first several years of China market entry.
Consider Local Service Providers with a Global View
Internet regulations and physical infrastructure conditions change frequently and vary by region within China. Staying abreast of these changes presents a significant challenge for online retailers. Today, many rely on local service providers. Local service providers can help during times of crisis, and more importantly, help online retailers to avoid crises in China before they ever occur.
Jeff Kim is COO of US/EMEA for CDNetworks and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor's Note: Although working around the censorship of the press in China may be a business reality, the editors of Apparel want to make it clear that we do not condone the Chinese government’s restrictions on freedom of speech.