Web Hosting in China: What You Need to Know About ICP
As the Chinese domestic economy continues to grow, businesses are seeing an increased desire to promote and sell their products and services to China’s rapidly growing middle class. Since the early 2000’s a web presence has been the cornerstone for most consumer businesses and when it comes to maintaining a web presence in China, there are some proven and practical ways to get going.
This blog will give you a starting point for hosting web services in China, but we should start by explaining that many of the applications you will be required to submit are only available in Chinese characters. Fortunately, Alibaba Cloud has vast experience and knowledge on this topic and has published numerous materials to help international companies research and apply for ICP registration.
Before deploying any Chinese hosted website or platform, all organizations must first apply for an Internet Content Provider (ICP) registration. ICP registration is administered by the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT). Enforced at the hosting level, all sites that are hosted in Mainland China — whether personal or for an organization — must obtain ICP registration before their site goes live.
All websites hosted in Mainland China are required to display their ICP registration in the footer of their website.
Above is an example from the Michael Kors Chinese domain www.michaelkors.cn which displays both the PSB (to the left) and the ICP Filing (to the right).
The registration number includes a single character indicating the Chinese province or municipality where the license was issued, the category of ICP registration, and the registration number.
ICP registration applies to websites, not other online applications such as gaming apps, internal analytic systems, and other projects that are not hosted on a website domain. In these cases, it is best to check application-specific guidelines.
There are three main categories of ICP registration relevant to websites or e-commerce platforms hosted on a server or Content Delivery Network (CDN) in Mainland China: ICP Filing, ICP Commercial License and EDI (Electronic Data Interchange). It is important to first understand which ICP category will allow your company’s website to operate with its intended functionality. That being said, an ICP Filing is compulsory for all applicants.
An ICP Filing, known in Chinese as ‘Bei’An’ is the first level of ICP registration. This license enables the holder to host a website on a server or CDN in Mainland China to distribute information. An example would be a retailer or a university operating a website that produces marketing content but does not provide an online payment gateway.
ICP Commercial License
An ICP Commercial License, known in Chinese as ‘ICP Zheng’, allows online platforms selling goods and services to deploy their website on a hosting server or CDN within Mainland China. An example is a retailer that is marketing and selling directly via an online payment gateway such as Alipay or PayPal.
Organizations intending to operate at a commercial level must apply for the ICP Filing before applying for the ICP Commercial License. Once they receive the ICP Filing, they may operate their website, but only as an information platform: they cannot trade from the website until they receive their ICP Commercial License.
An ICP Commercial License can only be issued to applicants with a commercially registered business entity in Mainland China. Locally owned Chinese companies and Joint Ventures where the foreign partner has less than 50% ownership are eligible for an ICP Commercial License. Representative Offices (RO) are not eligible for an ICP Commercial License as the business license tied to the organization does not allow the holder to generate direct revenue in Mainland China. Wholly Foreign Owned Enterprises (WFOEs) are also not eligible for an ICP Commercial License as there is a capital requirement for foreign applicants to have less than 50% ownership in the company.
An EDI License is required for web platforms processing online data and transactions. This means marketplaces that have multiple vendors directly selling goods and services on a web platform, as opposed to one vendor selling their products from an e-commerce website. An example would be platforms or marketplaces such as Taobao or Tmall where the platform facilitates transactions between multiple independent vendors and customers. The specific criteria vary across China and will evolve over time but any business in Peer-to-Peer lending or the fast-growing areas of “C2C” (Customer-to-customer) and “O2O” (Online-to-offline) transactions will need an EDI License to operate.
To obtain an EDI License, applicants must first apply for an ICP Filing. Like many regulations, the requirements can be tricky to navigate but there is help at hand. Eligibility for an EDI License is assessed on the organization’s ability to operate as an EDI business in Mainland China.
There are specific requirements for certain industries operating in China prior to an ICP application. Organizations involved in online news information services, Internet publications, education, healthcare, pharmaceuticals, culture, radio, film and TV, financial services, call centers or telecommunications, will definitely need to check the requirements which relate to their classification. This typically entails gaining permission from a relevant government agency before applying for ICP registration.
Can I Host Elsewhere?
There are political and social restrictions associated with the ICP framework. Key risk factors that may lead to your site being blocked include having a website with politically sensitive keywords or being hosted on a blocked domain or IP range. Indeed, issues arise if your site or the host you are using become blocked. Without ICP there is no line of communication to have this rectified. There is no middleman or government agency that you can appeal to or ask why you were blocked. Without the knowledge of why you were blocked, the process to renew your presence becomes an administrative nightmare for everyone involved.
That being said, plenty of web platforms do operate — but are not hosted — in Mainland China without ICP. There are numerous hosting options that can deliver bandwidth-intensive content to Mainland China at a reasonable speed. These include Singapore and less-regulated Hong Kong. The vast majority of businesses, especially those that wish to present their branding, corporate background, videos and imagery and showcase their business achievements, partners, services and products will find hosting in Hong Kong to serve the Chinese market, a very attractive option.
Issues arise when the website provides services such as online gaming, live-streaming or a high volume of visitors. In these cases, performance barriers may inhibit the growth of your business and a China-hosted website becomes a serious consideration.
Assistance from ICP Vendors
Due to the complexity of ICP, ever-changing requirements and the inability to submit an application in English, most applicants will require some form of assistance. Alibaba Cloud is one of the pre-eminent suppliers of advice and assistance in this area. Not only is Alibaba Cloud China’s #1 public cloud vendor but it is also an official online platform for submitting an ICP application. The platform provides a single Management Console for all aspects of the application and is supported by Alibaba Cloud personal Business Advisers and the ICP Support Team who can assist throughout the process. These can all be accessed through https://www.alibabacloud.com/icp.
The Alibaba Cloud Marketplace provides software and services to Alibaba Cloud customers from a range of partner providers around the world. Alibaba Cloud Marketplace partner consultancies such as SINO-TONE can also provide an end-to-end service for establishing a business in China.
If your business has a registered presence in Mainland China then the ICP Filing and the ICP License are definitely crucial investments in building the business in China. If your business does not have a business entity in China and does not plan to, then the next best option is to use servers hosted in Hong Kong.
As we have seen, ICP requirements and eligibility can vary from region to region and from business to business so talking with Alibaba Cloud is an important first step to finding the right path.
If you need assistance or advice obtaining the right insight into how your business can function in Mainland China you can find out more at: https://www.alibabacloud.com/icp
This recorded webinar also provides a thorough overview of the issues and the process: https://resource.alibabacloud.com/webinar/live.htm?webinarId=5