You Can’t Read This In China

by Andrew Kessinger on August 14, 2009

Chinese

Chinese Internet users won a small but encouraging victory on Thursday when Information Technology Minister, Li Yizhong, eased the controversial requirement to install website-filtering software on all new personal computers. The government-controlled software will still be mandatory in Internet cafes, schools and other public places however.

The social project, or Green Dam-Youth Escort, was conceived to filter out online pornography and other “unhealthy information” by forcing computers to connect and conform to the government’s ever-updating list of banned websites.

“The government gets many supplications from parents shedding tears, saying ‘save my children’,” Li explained. “I think this is not only a call from parents, but also society’s common wish. Some people broaden and politicize this issue and even attack our management controls of the Internet,” he told a news conference. “This does not accord with reality and is irresponsible.”

Lurking behind such stated intentions as preventing “obscenity” from “poisoning the young”, of course, has been the fear that Chinese authorities would block any content deemed unfavorable or subversive to its own interests. On a whim, citizens could find themselves without access to information or opinion that openly criticizes the government, stifling the freedom of thought and expression in the country’s 300 million Internet users. “[Installing Green Dam] is like downloading spyware onto your computer,” said Charles Mok, chairman of the Hong Kong chapter of the Internet Society, “but the government is the spy.”

Such concerns are entirely justified.

Over the last few years, websites documenting Chinese civil protest movements or human rights abuses (Dalai Lama, Tiananmen Square, the Falun Gong or Darfur) have been routinely blacklisted. In March of 2008, the government temporarily denied access to the popular video-sharing website YouTube for having distributed footage of Tibetan protests; in March of this year, the site was banned completely. During this year’s 20th anniversary of the military crackdown on Tiananmen Square, Twitter, Flickr, and Microsoft’s live.com were all taken offline as part of “national server maintenance day.”

The government’s heavy grip has also put American companies in a moral quagmire. For years Google, Microsoft and Yahoo have all compromised their search engine functionality by removing politically sensitive search results from Chinese end users. Human Rights Watch labeled it “ironic that [search engine] companies whose existence depends on freedom of information [are now taking] on the role of censor.”

Despite such censorship being commonplace in China, many were completely unprepared for the government’s surprise announcement in June that all new computers must ship with the Green Dam software pre-installed. That requirement, meant to take effect in July, especially alarmed computer manufacturers who were given but six weeks to conform. When it became clear that computer companies could not meet the regulation in time, authorities temporarily extended the deadline.

And now, in a surprising reversal, the government is pulling the proverbial plug on the project.

“It was never [our] intention to demand that the software be pre-installed, but that PC users were to have the final say about whether to use the software or not,” Li backtracked on Thursday. It’s hard to believe, however, that the last few months of international outcry and negotiation can somehow be boiled down to a simple “misunderstanding.”

What is still unclear, though, is what exactly changed China’s position.

American involvement might have played a role. In late June, U.S. officials traveled to Beijing in an attempt to convince the government to rescind the Green Dam project, citing among other reasons, ethical concerns. A few days later, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke lodged a formal complaint, suggesting that China’s last-minute obligation to computer manufacturers could violate World Trade Organization (WTO) regulations. “China is putting companies in an untenable position by requiring them, with virtually no public notice, to pre-install software that appears to have broad-based censorship implications and network security issues,” Locke said in a news release.

Some see the latest U.S. engagement as a healthy contrast with the previous Administration’s policy of sidestepping Chinese human rights abuses. “The issue of Internet freedom and openness was something that should have been at the top of the U.S. international agenda and hasn’t been,” noted Ed Black, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association. “The [Obama] administration is far more in tune with and ready to support Internet openness.”

Domestic pressures and protests also deserve credit for Thursday’s turn-around. Initial concern in the Chinese blogosphere over the censoring software quickly turned from fear to scorn – then ridicule – when researchers at the University of Michigan found huge security flaws in Green Dam that could allow hackers to take control of every computer running the software. Not only was the government-led initiative poorly thought-out, Chinese bloggers argued, but its execution was even worse.

Still, market forces – if nothing else – seem to be dictating the agenda. The NY Times reports that more than 40 million personal computers were sold last year in China, with an expected rise by 3 percent this year. Given the international slump in consumer spending, the numbers create a strong incentive for manufacturers to fulfill Chinese orders – in every sense of the word.

In perhaps a significant convergence of events, Thursday’s announcement to scrap the project comes just one day after China lost a major WTO case to the United States concerning difficult market access for US products. Could the fresh defeat have led Chinese authorities to take foreign manufacturer’s objections to Green Dam more seriously?

In the end, regardless whether ethics, domestic pressures, or dollars shaped this month’s breakthrough, two things are certain. For the moment, computer manufacturers are no longer torn between watching their bottom line and curtailing censorship. And Chinese Internet users – clearly the winners here – have what still looks to be an ongoing, online battle.

This article was first published in the New Atlanticist. Photo by Kirklau.

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