Censorship software displays a banned page.
Censorship software displays a banned page.

Seeing red over green: China to install censorship software

China’s announcement that personal computers sold from July 1 must carry Internet-filtering software pre-installed by the manufacturer should be a flashing red light to journalists and defenders of free expression online.

The two software programs, “Green Dam” and “Youth Escort,” are already on thousands of computers in Chinese schools to block undesirable content such as pornography. But on Monday the authorities published regulations given to PC makers on May 19 mandating that all machines be pre-loaded with the content filtering software from July 1. The government said the move was intended to promote “the healthy development of the Internet” and shield the public from harmful material.

These are not unusual goals. Many countries have controls in place to protect their citizens, particularly children, from pornography and graphic violence. But China already has an elaborate system of censorship and monitoring at the Internet Service Provider-level to filter out or block access to “undesirable” content. The problem is that the government’s definition of undesirable stretches to political and religious content. The idea that Beijing now needs to place another filter inside each of the 40 million PCs sold annually in the country to protect the public raises suspicion that the authorities have ulterior and more sinister motives. Other countries achieve China’s stated goal of public protection without installing government-mandated software in every machine.

Jinhui Computer System Engineering Co. Ltd’s Green Dam program–green describes a clean Internet environment–prevents access to pornography; Youth Escort filters out subversive and offensive language.


Internet censorship experts around the world are still figuring out exactly what Green Dam can and cannot do. A preliminary study by a team at the University of Michigan shows how the software blocks undesirable or politically sensitive content and optionally reports it to authorities. The Chinese blogosphere is abuzz with talk about how to deactivate it. China expert Rebecca MacKinnon notes that Beijing has a history of failing to implement such hastily conceived directives.


Chinese blogger Isaac Mao has been quoted extensively in the Western media saying the software is full of flaws that expose users to attacks by hackers who could steal personal information. Beijing blogger Shi Zhao told The Wall Street Journal he found data files in Green Dam that included Chinese phrases such as “6-4 massacre”–a reference to the Tiananmen Square crackdown. “The documents related to political stuff are very big–much, much bigger than those related to pornographic content,” he said.


The implications of these findings for journalists and bloggers are chilling. If this fiat from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology goes unchallenged, how will PC makers react if ordered to install more sophisticated tracking technology to allow the state to keep an eye on users? Journalist Shi Tao is serving a 10-year jail term for his online communications after Chinese authorities tracked him down with far less sophisticated means–they asked his e-mail account provider Yahoo for his information.


The Green Dam move has implications for mobile handset manufacturers too. More and more journalists and ordinary citizens in China, Africa, and the Middle East are sending and receiving news via mobile phone text messaging. And as 3G mobile technology expands, handsets, not desktops, will be the way these customers access the Internet. What happens when repressive regimes want filtering or tracking software pre-loaded on mobile devices as a condition of access to lucrative emerging markets? What will that do to citizen journalism?


Equipment manufacturers are now faced with the kinds of questions already hashed out in the boardrooms of Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft since the Shi Tao case emerged–how to respond to government demands that violate internationally recognized standards of freedom of expression and user privacy. Initial reaction by the manufacturing sector has been cautious. On Tuesday trade associations in the United States issued this statement:

“The Information Technology Industry Council, the Software & Information Industry Association, the Telecommunications Industry Association and TechAmerica urge the Chinese government to reconsider implementing its new mandatory filtering software requirement and would welcome the opportunity for a meaningful dialogue. We believe there should be an open and healthy dialogue on how parental control software can be offered in the market in ways that ensure privacy, system reliability, freedom of expression, the free flow of information, security and user choice.”An industry dialogue with Beijing might be one way to mitigate the effects of these regulations. A second avenue for pushback could lie in trade. When I asked the World Trade Organization in Geneva to comment on Green Dam it said, “WTO rules do not cover this.” 

But public policy makers, politicians, and Web companies themselves, whose advertising business model is based on a free and open Internet, increasingly acknowledge that Net censorship is a barrier to trade. Can governments in the United States and Europe be prevailed upon to use trade to protect freedom of expression?


A third response for PC makers may be to follow the example of Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft. These three joined with human rights and press freedom groups, including CPJ, academics, and socially responsible efforts last year in the Global Network Initiative in an attempt to safeguard basic free expression and privacy rights online.


The initiative’s core principles also apply to equipment makers and telecom companies, none of which have yet joined. Perhaps Green Dam will pique their interest.