The Great Firewall Strikes Yet Again; China Warns VoIP Sites by Labeling Skype Illegal

Websites such as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, IMDB, Wired are already blocked in China and Google closed down its Chinese servers last year. And in the latest move China has announced that all internet phone calls (that rely on VoIP; services like Skype) are to be banned apart from those made over two state-owned networks, China Unicom and China Telecom.

The Great Firewall Strikes Yet Again; China Warns VoIP Sites by Labeling Skype Illegal

According to the People’s Daily , Chinese authorities have said that only China Telecom and China Unicom will be allowed to provide Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services to customers. Both China Telecom and China Unicom — the former is the largest land-line telephone company in the country, the latter is the nation’s second-largest 3G mobile carrier — are state controlled.

Yesterday, Wang Chen, the deputy head of the Chinese Propaganda department, said: “By November … 350 million pieces of harmful information, including text, pictures and videos, had been deleted [from the Chinese internet].” Some Chinese users of Twitter, the micro-blogging website, claimed they could already no longer download Skype, but the service appeared to be working normally in Shanghai.

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), which published the ruling earlier this month, has not set a timetable for implementing the new VoIP restrictions. When it does, Skype will probably be barred. “[This] is expected to make services like Skype unavailable in the country,” the Communist Party’s official paper said.

Experts said the rules would be difficult, if not impossible, to enforce, since Chinese internet users could simply download versions of Skype or other internet phone call programs from websites outside China. So undoubtedly, the measure has been met with criticism, as some argue it clearly results in complete Chinese control of the market. “It’s ridiculous, VoIP is a popular technology worldwide” said Beijing University professor of posts and telecommunications Kan Kaili. He went on to say he doubts Skype will actually be banned.

It is very unlikely that they will manage to shut Skype down,” said Professor Kan Kaili. “Skype is the market leader, but there is also MSN and Gmail Talk. The children of Chinese government officials, who are studying abroad, use these services to call home, so I do not think anyone is going to cut the lines. Even if they take a strict approach, such as getting local operators to block the broadband services of people who use Skype, people will still find a way around it,” he added.

If the move to block Skype and similar sites succeeds, it could be incredibly damaging. China is easily the largest market for Internet phone service in the world, and it was announced yesterday that its number of Internet users rocketed to 450 million over 2010 – an increase of 20 percent from last year.

Since 2007, Skype has partnered with Chinese mobile Internet carrier TOM Online to offer a Chinese-language version of its client software. The joint TOM-Skype site however is still available (as of writing) to users outside of China.

At any rate, once in effect the new regulations would only ban Skype from making calls from a computer to a landline, and PC-exclusive VoIP activity could still be available.  It’s possible that Skype’s recent addition of video calling via iOS devices was the last straw with the Chinese government and motivation to reissue the nearly three year old ban. Whether or not it’s permanent this time is another matter. Regulators may simply want to give homegrown businesses a chance to develop an answer to Skype’s latest iPhone update.

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