China postpones installation of filtering software…for now

China’s Internet censors have blinked. In the face of opposition ranging from PC makers abroad to bloggers at home, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has backed away, at least for now, from a hastily conceived directive that all new PCs sold from July 1 should carry filtering software. 

The ministry said the requirement to pre-install Internet-filtering programs called “Green Dam” and “Youth Escort” had been postponed indefinitely. It cited concerns by overseas manufacturers that they could not comply with the directive in time as the reason for the delay. But Internet activists and bloggers who had opposed the software as intrusive and unsafe also took credit for the rollback.

Green Dam, which has already been installed on many school computers in China, was ostensibly conceived to shield children from harmful content such as pornography. But Internet experts around the world quickly unpacked it, showing that the software could be used to filter politics as much as porn. They also claimed it opened up PCs to viruses. In what could become a useful future avenue for countries championing free expression, the U.S. Commerce Department voiced concern that the directive violated international trade rules.

China-watchers, both corporate and academic, are already sifting through the rubble of the Green Dam directive for clues. Is this a de-escalation in the face of international and domestic criticism? If so, does it bode well for future collaborative pushback by foreign companies against government decrees that infringe on basic rights and freedoms? Or was Green Dam an ill-conceived project that was never endorsed by the highest echelons of government and party who have now crushed it to avoid embarrassment?

Whatever the answers to these questions, concerted opposition means that the 40 million PCs sold each year in China won’t come with a spy inside.