Chinese Domaining Masterclass: An Early History of Chinese IDNs

We’re back with a new piece taken from ourChinese Domaining Masterclass! In the past, the masterclass content focused heavily on each numeric and the importance of understanding what they mean when investing in Chinese domain names.chinese-domain-name

This piece is a bit different!

Today, I’d like to present a brief history of Chinese IDNs. This interesting topic illustrates the  beginning of fully-Chinese scripts and how they were implemented into the DNS. This perspective will better help you understand the context behind why Chinese people want to use the internet in their own native language, and you might learn something along the way as well!

With that said, let’s get started.

In the Chinese internet’s early days, Chinese domains were expected

The localization of the internet has always been under the spotlight for Chinese netizens and entrepreneurs, even in the earliest days of China’s internet business. The reason is obvious: that new thing called “the web” had to be accessed by URLs composed in Roman (ASCII) letters, so the learning curve was steep for a lot of Chinese people. Additionally, since Chinese companies “localized” (or cloned) almost every popular online service (Sohu and Netease cloned Yahoo, Tencent OICQ cloned ICQ), there was no reason in most Chinese minds that that URLs shouldn’t also be localized into Chinese.

Along came 3721 As early as 1998, a controversscreen-shot-2016-10-14-at-3-17-41-pmial individual by the name of Zhou Hongyi had an idea for the localization of internet URLs. Here’s what Zhou’s ideas entailed:

  • If all domain names will ultimately be resolved into IP addresses by DNS servers, a similar process could be done at a local level.
  • By installing an ActiveX plugin to a user’s web browser, each website request will go through the plugin first, where it could be parsed and resolved.
  • If we create this system for domain names to resolve without going through the standard DNS servers, we will achieve something that normal DNS systems can’t do: we can resolve URLs written entirely in Chinese characters.

Zhou went forward by creating a company named “3721,” which was derived from a Chinese folk saying “I don’t care if 3 multiplied by 7 makes 21,” meaning “I don’t care if this is good, I’m doing it anyway.” Hence, Zhou said that although a Chinese URL is technically not possible by international DNS standards, we’re doing it anyway!

In 3721’s original implementation, their “Chinese domain names” weren’t real, as in they could not be resolved by the standard DNS. Regardless, it was called “网络实名” (“real online names”). Each “domain name” in the product of the 3721 system is literally just one keyword or keyphrase, unattached to any domain. The entire URL has just one single segment. For example, one could purchase the online keyword/keyphrase of “奥巴马” (Obama) from 3721, and redirect it to his/her own website. By typing in “奥巴马” on any web browser that has the 3721 plugin installed, you are taken to that website. No dot-com, no dot-anything.

Despite its flaws, 3721 made sense because Chinese people wanted Chinese domains 

3721’s vision made so much sense, and its product did indeed serve the urgent demand of an existing market (namely, anyone who’s trying to learn how to use the internet), that it saw major success. After a few rounds of media exposure on China’s television networks and national newspapers, large numbers of early internet users and internet cafes were installing the plugin, because it actually made the internet accessible to all Chinese people.

In October 2001, 3721 announced that it was a profitable business, which was practically impossible back then, when virtually all internet businesses were sustaining losses.  In 2003, 3721 was acquired by Yahoo, which renamed the plugin “Yahoo Helper.”

3721 was not the user-friendlyHowever, things had already been going awry, even when 3721 was at its peak. People discovered that in addition to simply resolving Chinese strings typed into the address bars of browsers, the 3721 plugin (later “Yahoo Helper”) had been also busy in other ways:

  • By clicking “install,” the user actually installed three different applications into his/her personal computer: the 3721 plugin itself, and two other plugins that redirected the user’s search engine usage.
  • Worse still, the three plugins reinforced each other. By uninstalling any of them, the other two tried to reinstall the missing software from 3721’s servers or from an offline copy hidden somewhere in the user’s disk drive. Unless the user was especially tech-savvy and knew how to utilize the “Safe Mode” of Microsoft Windows, removal of the 3721 plugin (and hence, restoration of actual DNS-driven internet access) was virtually impossible.
  • The plugin ran as a separate process in the operating system, reducing the overall performance of computers.
  • The plugin disrupted users’ favorites/bookmarks, aggressively promoting websites that paid 3721 for increased traffic.
  • 3721 bundled its plugin with a large number of freeware applications so it was almost impossible for a Chinese netizen to surf the web without accidentally installing it, or re-installing it.
  • The whole time, this bogus Chinese script view of the internet was marketed as Chinese domain names. A growing desire to access the real DNS-driven web accelerated in China.

The backlash against 3721 

Within the next decade, public opinion of 3721 “Chinese domain names” plugin turned from positive to extremely negative. Today, the 3721 plugin is considered “the mother of all malware” in China, and the combination of those four numbers “3721” carries a reminder of the notorious past in which only a bogus view of the web was possible.

Thanks to the virus-inducing distribution and embedding, plus the herculean difficulty in uninstalling it, the plugin maintained a remarkable installed base throughout most of its life cycle, only hitting a slight roadblock since Microsoft enhanced the security mechanism in Windows XP SP2 (released in 2004). By 2009, Yahoo China terminated the whole “Yahoo Helper” product line, putting an end to 3721 and its legacy.

But the damage had been done. Anything related to 3721 was shunned by Chinese netizens including the name, the term “上网助手” (online helper), the term “网络实名” (online real name), and the term “中文上网” (accessing the internet in Chinese).

Many Chinese internet businesses worked out their own “Chinese domain name” solutions, fundamentally the same as 3721’s keyword/keyphrase hack. Some credible attempts were made by Baidu and China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC). Eventually Baidu gave up trying to compete, and CNNIC began lobbying ICANN for real Chinese domain names.

Real Chinese domains followed 3721’s bogus Chinese domains 

CNNIC managed to have IDNs established as an industry standard by ICANN around 2007, and the national registry started to offer “.中国” (“China” in Simplified Chinese) real Chinese domain names. However the new era of real Chinese domain names faced a challenging time in the market, due to three key reasons:

  • Confusion with 3721. CNNIC had to repeatedly explain how its real Chinese IDNs differed from the notorious 3721 keywords/keyphrases.
  • Over the years of avoiding Chinese domain name malware plugins such as 3721, the younger generations of Chinese netizens grew accustomed to romanized URLs.
  • Those netizens who were too old to learn a little English found their niche in “online yellow pages” such as, a technically primitive service that simply lists and categorizes websites (whether popular or placed for payment), specifically targeting   users who have difficulty recalling romanized URLs and do not know how to use a real search engine.

The rebooting of Chinese domain names 

In late 2013 and early 2014, the first of the fully-Chinese new gTLDs were released, and over 70 new Chinese TLDs are expected to join the internet in the coming years.
Registries which have invested in this new generation of TLDs include Chinese government organizations CNNIC and CONAC, brands and private businesses such as TLD Registry. These investments have been made because they believe there is an unambiguous market for Chinese domain names: they were warmly greeted and achieved major success in 1998, and that desire for an internet accessible by all Chinese is undiminished.

Just don’t ever say “plugin.” 3721 has left a generation of Chinese netizens with a permanent scar.

– ChopChop Domains Team​