Internet Oasis or Filter-Free Mirage: China, North Korea Plan Unrestricted Internet Districts, UAE Experience Tells a Different Story

Co-authored by Jackie Kerr.

North Korea has announced plans to create an Internet and mobile phone zone in its Mount Kumgang tourism zone. If implemented, such an Internet zone would mark an unprecedented opening of net and mobile freedom in one of the most politically repressive countries in the world. Although a few thousand individuals (mostly government officials) have access to the Internet, all other online activities are currently conducted through North Korea’s Kwangmyong intranet.

North Korea, in this sense, seems to be following in the footsteps of China’s recent plans for an unfiltered cloud computing district in Chongqing. Although not as restrictive as North Korea, in the sense that Chinese citizens generally have access to the global Internet, China’s “Great Firewall” is one of the world’s most advanced and pervasive online filtering and censorship systems. The Chongqing cloud computing district would allow foreign investors in the area to bypass Chinese filters and conduct transactions and business activities on an unrestricted Internet.

The Chongqing initiative has not gone without backlash from both within and abroad. Some foreign sources remain skeptical of uploading data into a cloud that hovers over one of the most heavily censored Internet territories in the world, even if it purports to have unrestricted net access. Additionally, plans for the unfiltered Internet district have drawn criticism from Chinese netizens who have likened its exclusion of Chinese users to the “No dogs or and No Chinese Allowed” policies from the early 20th century, which barred Chinese citizens from entering certain foreign residential areas.

While China and North Korea remain in the developmental stages of creating unfiltered Internet districts, the idea of the development of small zones of Internet freedom in countries in which the Internet is otherwise highly filtered is not new. In fact, some of the first such districts - focused also on establishing zones of intensive economic development - occurred in the United Arab Emirates, starting more than a decade ago. In November 2000, the UAE established Dubai Internet City (DIC), which was to be the first of several such zones. This district, located 25 kilometers south of downtown Dubai along the highway connecting Dubai and Abu Dhabi, was established by the UAE government as a free trade zone, and designed as a hub for information and communication technology business and development. The district’s growth rapidly over the ensuing decade, attracting many foreign companies and serving as a center for some home-grown IT companies as well. According to one source it is now the largest information technology park in the Middle East. The apparently successful free trade zone model was duplicated in several other Dubai zones established for the development of particular economic clusters in the 2000s, including Dubai Media City (now known as a global media hub), Knowledge Village, and Dubai Academic City. Each of these districts were known for its free trade zone regulations and unfiltered Internet access.

The story of the UAE’s free Internet zones indicates questions that are likely to arise concerning the future of the new unfiltered districts in China and North Korea, however. On April 14, 2008, the ISP Du, which had previously provided unfettered Internet access for businesses and residents in the UAE’s free zones, began to filter, doing so almost as extensively as the country’s other major ISP, Etisalat.
The filtering was put into place to comply with new regulations by the UAE’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority. The policy shift was explained as a response to a recent increase in complaints by Du users concerning the accessibility of offensive websites. “We want to ensure that all our customers' requirements are met, and that we comply with all the guidelines of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), including those on internet content filtering,” extensive filtering of websites containing content that is political, religious or pornographic in nature, or that relates to drugs and alcohol, gay and lesbian issues, online dating, or gambling. Blocked sites also include circumvention and privacy tools and Nazi and revisionist historical materials. The most recent testing of UAE Internet filtering levels by the ONI in 2008-2009 showed the filtration level in the free zones to now be close to that in other regions of the country. Remarkably, in spite of this dramatic policy shift and the dependence of these zones’ economic successes on the presence of foreign companies, economic growth in these districts continues to boom, with little negative reaction from businesses.

The UAE experience with the creation of an unfiltered Internet zone followed by the reimplementation of filtering technologies following a surge in foreign investment leads to questions regarding the possible trajectories of similar projects in China and North Korea. On one hand, plans for the unprecedented creation of limited zones of free Internet access in China and North Korea may lead some observers to optimistically forecast a future of broader Internet freedom in these countries. Conversely, the experience of the UAE demonstrates the prospect of a different path of development, whereby free Internet access is permitted only so long as is necessary to secure a sustainable pattern of growth and investment.