ICP License for Chinese Website Hosting

Michael MicheliniBlog, Corporate, HR and Legal4 Comments

An all too often question I get is about China hosting. Here is an example:

“Hi Mike, our domain [website removed] is apparently being blocked in China. We are working with a partner that will probably start selling to the Chinese market. Do you have any suggestions/pointers on hosting providers within mainland? Best regards”

And emails like this:

My company, based in UK, develops and sells software products to hotels. Customers use our software through our website that is currently hosted in Ireland. Our customers in China face speed issues while accessing our website and we have been told that the solution is to host the software within China. What is the easiest and quickest way for a UK company to host software in China?

After my rather extensive reply (which we’ll cover below):

“Very interesting, I didn’t know you needed an ICP to have your content hosted in China. Turns out that our problem seems to be a routing issue. We are still investigating. Thank you very much for the detailed response.”

So let’s break this down, and future readers can check this post for insights and answers! Also I would love tips and tricks from others who have been through this.

Don’t Want Your Website Blocked in China? Host in China

While I understand the logic of companies not wanting to host their website server and databases inside of China, and that is fine. But don’t complain or wonder why your site may be slow or blocked inside of China.

Sure, you may not have anything on your website that would make a reason for it to be blocked, but maybe there is? I joke sometimes when people ask me why China blocked their website. I’ll say “I’m not sure either, why don’t you call the Chinese filtering customer service phone number”. You can guess there isn’t a phone number. But really, we don’t know why our websites may get blocked or not. It may not even be our website, it could be another website on that IP address (if you are on a shared IP). What someone in the Chinese internet said about your website in a forum with a link to your site. All these questions I get about why their website is slow or blocked in China makes me think of the questions about why their website isn’t on the top of Google anymore. Google won’t answer your questions about why your website is higher or lower in the search rankings. So think of getting your site blocked in China as a similar idea.

And if you are hosting in China, and for some reason filtering isn’t upheld, they don’t block your website, instead they take it offline. The hosting companies would comply with a request from the government that your website hosting package should be taken offline, and your hosting then would be deactivated. Maybe there is a way to dispute it (I can’t say I have heard of anyone who has done this), but often I have heard friends tell me it is just lost without any recourse.

But it is simple. If you want your website to load fast in China, and not become blocked inside the Chinese internet, you need to get a Chinese hosting package. There is also a license from the Chinese government allowing you to host this information online. This is an ICP – Internet Content Provider licence.

Short Term Solution If Your Site Is Blocked

Normally a block is done on an IP address instead of a domain (though there are different levels of blocking). I have noticed some hosting companies share your IP with a ton of other clients. Most other websites don’t know or care what information the Chinese government may not like and will block. So if they are hosting information that the PRC doesn’t like, then it will be blocked as well as your website.

So if your website is blocked, a short term way to resolve this is to switch the IP address at your hosting company and hope that the new IP isn’t blocked in China.

Your hosting company may think you are crazy to ask, so I would just be upfront and direct with them about the situation and reasoning why you need to change your IP. Some are able to do it, some charge a fee, and others I have found to be really difficult in this IP switch process. I’ve lost track of which hosting providers are the best on this process, its been years for me now and I don’t normally set that as a decision making criteria, ha!

More Options From Wechat

In a lot of Wechat groups and got some good insights. China hosting would be best, but need the ICP.

Hosting closer to Hong Kong or Singapore might help too. Or remove any elements within the source code that has google/twitter framework. Baidu have the duplicate hosted on non-GFW network.

Depending on the requirement, for webpages structure, many front end dev just utilize whatever framework existed from repository made by Google etc (for faster web access), so that dev do not need to do it again such as fonts. It is these fonts that is hosted on Google servers or sites (which is blocked by GFW). Baidu made some exact duplicate of these files hosted within GFW. Just need to replace these files and it will work fine. But obviously, if too much changes need to be made + testing, might as well just host it within China. Whether it’s worth the hassle, up to them.

The link to replace the fonts. These fonts should work miracles (broken – https://fonts.lug.ustc.edu.cn) (if indeed the problem lies with the Google fonts hosted out of GFW)

(Thanks to Victor Lee as well as Thomas from Walkthechat)

Other people host some of their assets in HK through Rackspace. They’re a little expensive but have always been good speed, good service etc

Hosting Both Inside and Outside of China with a CDN

You can host both in China (once you get a license to host) as well as overseas of course by manually copy/pasting your website over. But another strategy is to use a CDN (Content Delivery Network). This will synchronize your hosting accounts inside China as well as outside of China. Depending on how technical you are you may understand this. There is the server space and then the database – you probably would want to have the database also synchronized on both hosting accounts rather than only using one. But I know how people want to protect their user database and may not want to put that on both sides of the internet. But this CDN is the best technical solution for your business to deal with speed and each government’s policies on hosting and data.

I have to admit I have not done this before, but know it is a solution some use. Some have used a server in Singapore and then one in China with a CDN from the same company. I would love to hear from people in the comments on their experience if they have gone through this process.

To Host in China, You Need an ICP License

To host your website in China, you need to get an ICP (internet content provider) license. This is approval from the government that you can put information on the internet (not just in China, but anywhere is what they would tell you). So if the Chinese had their way, anyone in the world should have to declare their information to the government and get approval to host this to the public. I am trying my best to not get political here. The main idea is that the policies are in place to protect the people from being cheated by reading lies or fake information. It was also setup to protect the Chinese people from viewing internet porn. It is also a way to make an individual responsible for the information they publish online. In the Western world, there are ways you can hide behind the website and not make it public who owns the website (privacy on the WHO IS database). But in China, you need to publicly declare who you are and connect your personal identification to the website you put online. In a way, one could see the logic in this, and the way the government says it is that this protects its people from being mislead. I know what you may also be thinking, but I won’t type it here.

Two Kinds of ICP Licenses

There are two kinds of ICP licenses (that I am aware of, things seem to change rapidly).

  • Right to host your information online

    I call this a web 1.0 license – remember before social media? Ya, I have trouble remember that too. This license is for the ability for you as a business to create an website to display your products and services. It is not to allow the general public to interact /comment/ add information to it. Its basically for a brochure website. This one you also cannot have e-commerce run through it either, meaning SSL on your own website with credit card checkout. But you can redirect that to other websites for the transaction. Foreign companies can apply for this, so long as their company license matches what data you will show on the website.

  • User Generated Content (UGC)

    This is the one where the general public can submit comments, photos, and be social. Bulliten boards, forums also. Anything where there is interaction and the general user online can interact and post their views and comments. This one foreign companies cannot get, only Chinese companies can get. This one is also a bit more difficult and takes more paperwork and applications.

How to File for an ICP License

So how to file an ICP license? This is another popular question, you can do it in two different situations:

  • A Local Chinese person applies, in their name. I assume people reading this aren’t local Chinese. So you would need a local Chinese partner or someone in China that you trust to file it in their name. To define a local Chinese, this means Mainland Chinese, with a Chinese ID card, so a Hong Kong or Taiwan person cannot file as a local. I have been asked this question a lot from my Hong Kong friends.

  • *A Westerner / Foreigner applies, as an owner of a Chinese company* (WFOE) – This is the more legitimate way, and I have done it. The official website is http://www.miibeian.gov.cn/ where you can read up on this and go through the steps. The reason you can do this is because you own a business in China, and it is acceptable that a business owner needs a website for their company. But this is only for a “brochure” website, to list your company information – not for social media, or even allowing comments.

The rest of this article I will talk about point 2, doing it in your own name with your Chinese company.

But You First Need To Order Hosting (server)

The “chicken or the egg” issue here is that to apply for an ICP you need to first buy a server. When I ordered from Aliyun (Alicloud – the cloud hosting company under the Alibaba brand) I could only buy a 1 year package. Note that wasn’t refundable if my ICP license wasn’t approved. But you can upgrade it later, so I picked the approximately 2,000rmb a year ($300 US dollars) package and figured I can upgrade later if I need. They did help us with filing the ICP so that was an added plus.

The hosting must be inside China. I have had people ask if they can have a server outside of China with an ICP license. The answer is no. And then I know you’ll ask why. It comes down to control. If the server is hosting outside of China, then the Chinese internet government department cannot turn it off if need be. If the server is inside China, then the government can ask the hosting company to turn off your hosting account if they want. If you host it on your own server inside China, then they will know where it is and can go there to turn it off or seize it. This is what you are signing up for.

They take the filtering and control of the information said inside China serious. You must have a server inside China and declare that to the Chinese internet government department when filing. You can complain or call it not fair or stupid, it doesn’t make a difference, this is the way it is.

The License Has Your Photo

You will also need to take your photo at an authorized photo shop, similar shops that do this for passport photos and photocopying. There are less choices in this case. I had to go to an obscure location in Nanshan district as the normal “Kodak” photo shops in my area weren’t authorized to take photos for the ICP license. I believe there needs to be special software on the shop’s computer to upload your photo to the government server directly.

I forget the fee for this, but it was pretty nominal. I didn’t make a schedule for the photo, I simply showed up, waited for a few people ahead of me, and then took the photo. I had to tell them I was applying for the ICP, I believe I had a receipt or some paperwork to show them. They knew what to do, I believe it was a red color backdrop for the photo, and I had my license number for the ICP in the photo.

I am not sure where this photo is right now. But I do know they government files the photo in connection with my ICP license. Declares that I am the responsible individual for this website. If something political happens or I am not properly taking care of the website’s content, it is on my personal liability. A bit scary to be honest.

Once You Submit ICP Application – You Wait

How long do you need to wait for your ICP once you submit the application, I know this is on your mind. Well, this seems to depend on how many applications are ahead of you. Amy my assistant at the time told me they were pretty busy with many applications and it would take two weeks. Keep in mind that while you are waiting, your website will not be able to be public. The hosting company will not allow that until you have the proper ICP license to show them. This is because they cannot risk their own license with the Chinese internet society.

So while this is waiting, you just need to sit tight and hope it goes through.

Approved? Your ICP Allows You to Post Content Relevant to Your Business

So what can you do with the ICP license? You need to “control” yourself and make sure you keep it, putting first things first! The purpose is to post relevant content about your business. I once wanted to blog about my personal life (like I do on my English Blog MikesBlog.com) but they said a foreigner cannot have a blog in China. That you need to keep the content on the website focused on the business.

You have worked hard to get this license, no need to screw it up at the end and jeopardize things.

This is the whole reason they filter, to make us restrict and control what we write and say online. Like Google said for a while (before taking back their words), it is better to be here and follow the local rules than to not be here at all. Seems they changed their mind on that philosophy. It is up to you and your business if you will abide by the rules for filtering your content in China.

But if you think you will get away with saying whatever you want long term, then you can see that even Google lost that battle.

Need To Put Your ICP on the Footer of Your Website

Once you’re approved with an ICP and have your Chinese hosting working and website online, you need to show your ICP license on the footer of every page. If you look below you can see mine

You can check many famous Chinese websites such as Baidu search and you will see the ICP license at the bottom. It is something I do for “fun” now when browsing the Chinese internet.

You should also put a backlink to the Chinese government website. It is also worth noting for those internet marketers reading this that the Chinese ICP website has the most backlinks in the world, I have heard exceeding Google itself. This is because practically every website in China, on every homepage as well as inner page, is pointing to this domain. Pretty amazing, the power and influence here.

In Summary

You need to say to yourself if you believe the “if you can’t beat them, join them” quote will work for you here. You can’t change the rules in China, not even Google can. If you want to have your website hosted in China, you need to jump through these hoops.

On another note, many Chinese don’t visit a businesses website! They are all checking the famous Wechat social media pages and Sina blogs, they don’t use websites. A lot of my Chinese content is hosted on Chinese social media sites and Baidu’s social pages. I know what you’re thinking, you’re thinking like a westerner and that you want people to come to your website, to drive traffic and watch you analytics grow. That just isn’t the case in China. And honestly, even in the Western world that is happening less and less.

We need to embrace and adapt.

Good luck, and I’d love to hear your feedback and comments below. I will try to update this as often as I can.

How Was Your Experience, Have a Chinese Website and ICP License?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback. Are you processing the ICP now? Having issues? Let’s see if we can all share our ideas and make this a way to give foreigners in China a better chance at doing internet business in the middle kingdom!

Feedback From a Tech Programmer in Hong Kong

A tech friend in Hong Kong asked about ICP license and I sent him this guide. He came back with the following:

Thanks for sending the write up, I have comments in two areas.

First is that the China Internet (Network? LAN?) 😉 not only poses the issue of blockades, there is also a serious bandwidth, latency and packet loss constraint when passing through the GFW. This is the problem we hit. Most of the year it’s doable, but sometimes, especially in politically sensitive situations (maybe the Myanmar election this week?) there is obviously troubles to pass the GFW. I’ve seen many network errors, and the frequency and variations of them indicate more tampering than actual network constraints. In such case, even the “rim network strategy”, meaning to place your server as close to China as possible, e.g. Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea or Japan West doesn’t help, because all international traffic is suffering. In fact, even a VPN into China often faces a lot of packet loss, intentionally interrupting the network and making it too frustrating to use, effectively blocking you. Especially HTTPS traffic is challenging, as it requires a single stable connection, whereas HTTP traffic can attempt to succeed per request, and is easier to retry.

Second is the CDN. It’s exactly the situation we had to solve this week. Our web application is hosted in Hong Kong, but to make the performance through the GFW acceptable, we would need to partner with a CDN that has performance guarantees.

For instance, in my past job as IT Manager, I’ve setup a regional company VPN, where we had a networking partner to provide a connection from HK to two other offices in China. They could provide a latency and average bandwidth guarantee. However, the private keys to encrypt the VPN were in their hand, and I had to sign a contract that basically allowed the China government to access the network if they had reasons of concern. In effect I do not think that ever happened. Also monitoring all that traffic is a waste of energy, especially when there is a legal backdoor in case it’s needed.

With the CDN, in case you need to support HTTPS, you’ll need to pass the SSL certificate and private key to the CDN. They terminate the HTTPS connections in their data center, and then proxy/forward the traffic to you, possibly outside China and with a more guaranteed performance. You can do this also via HTTPS, but because it’s decrypted at the CDN servers, there is the potential for a man-in-the-middle attack. Now, of course your common (western) hosting has the same security challenge, can you really trust their network administrators? Again, the idea is that if needed, the network traffic can be inspected. Whether that actually happens really depends on the feasibility of logging so much traffic.

Last, there is the risk of corporate espionage. It certainly has happened to western businesses active in China, and private network access may very well be the root cause. So if you are an overly competitive business with other established and respectful businesses in China, you might want to think twice whether to keep servers in China. This is exactly the reason why Google had to pull out. If you can decrypt HTTPS, you can also see credentials in plain text. Only two factor authentication is your last defence in that case.

Thanks for the tips on the registration process Mike, certainly insightful. Luckily our mainland based client already applied for an ICP license, and they also could use it to apply for the CDN. They are going to setup it in the next week and monitor the performance. I hope the connection from their China servers to our Hong Kong data center is reliable.

Services to Register an ICP (without a Chinese Company)

Don’t have a Chinese company but want to get a Chinese website? This is an important task to help you get up and running.

Note: Have a Chinese Company Already – check our service for registering an ICP with a Chinese company

In case you didn’t know – you need a Chinese ICP license in order to host a website in Mainland China. What does that mean? It means you have to file with the Chinese government and declare who you are, what you are doing, and the use for this website.

Oh, and you need to be a Chinese ID holder or have a local Chinese company.

Ya, we know, it is troublesome.

But this is a service for those who are not in the Chinese market, don’t have a Chinese company, and want to work with a company who can represent them and help file the ICP on their behalf.

Sounds good?

This service will get you started with the application, and allow you to operate a Chinese website without the hassle of opening a company!

File an ICP with a Chinese company

Get an ICP up and running right away for your Chinese website business.

ICP Beian License is required in order for you to get your website live in China Internet. Without it you cannot use a server hosted in China or Chinese Content Delivery Network (CDN).

This is a service if you already have a Chinese company registered and want to have a professional service help you get the ICP application settled. If you do not yet have a Chinese company – check our service registering for an ICP license without a Chinese company.

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Tags: asia, china, corporate, e-commerce, entrepreneur, guide, internet content provider, web hosting

4 Comments on “ICP License for Chinese Website Hosting”

  1. Aldo

    Thank you for your article is of great help , we have opened a website in China, for seo in the West for Chinese language translations and we have a friend who wants to open a website in China, and we next question ,

    Use a HK hosting without ICP license is detrimental to the seo in Baidu ?

    1. Michael Michelini

      Hi Aldo,
      happy to hear you enjoyed our article and it helped !

      For SEO in the West , or for “getting found” for your target customers- it is always best to get the server / hosting where the customer is based. Therefore I’d recommend getting a .com domain with a USA servier hosting plan. This is for google, but also for your visitor – you want them to have the website load fast. Just like having an office in the city you’re selling, you want a host in the city you are selling.

      2) Without ICP – it is still possible to get rank in Baidu. But of course an ICP website will be more favorable to Baidu as it means it is approved by the Chinese government to have a website in China.

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