China’s Green Dam finally cracks

The Chinese government backed away on Thursday from its attempt to mandate censorship software, “Green Dam” and “Youth Escort,” on personal computers, a move that was previously delayed. Ministry of Industry and Information Technology official Li Yizhong denied there was ever an intention to require pre-installation of the programs on Thursday, saying the government’s May announcement of its plans were misleading, according to state newspaper China Daily

While the software will still be on computers in public places, individual users will be able to view “harmful” content–whether pornographic or anti-government–in comparative freedom. That is, if they can bypass the already extensive filtering technology that stymies free Web access in China.

Analysts familiar with China’s government point out that official announcements are often more tentative than their language would imply. Internet freedom advocate Rebecca MacKinnon‘s take: “China has a long history of edicts targeted at the tech, telecoms, and media sectors going unenforced [or] quietly retracted.” Dan Harris, an international lawyer who writes on the well-known China Law Blog, wrote: “China … floats new laws to gauge reaction. If the reaction is negative, the law oftentimes never comes into being.”

Yet the Green Dam chapter remains instructive, underscoring the government’s ongoing commitment to controlling the Internet. It has carried on suppressing information in the name of clean-up campaigns and will certainly continue to do so: Internet users are damned either way. Furthermore, Green Dam reveals the growth of censorship as an industry, one from which the Chinese makers behind the software were positioned to garner extraordinary profits through cooperation with authorities.

It also serves as a reminder that the voices of Internet users and editorial pages combined wield more influence than some observers expect in a non-democratic state. We at CPJ are used to drawing attention to China’s gargantuan list of imprisoned journalists, a testament to the punitive measures government critics face when expressing their views in the media or online. But that list exists in a context of engagement between citizens and officials that can result in more positive outcomes.

Green Dam, of course, involved non-Chinese companies–often less experienced at this nuanced negotiation process–importing computers for sale in China. China’s Internet market, now the largest in the world, offers powerful attractions for foreign corporations who are still learning how to ensure that the rights of their customers in China are not undermined during deals with its government.

The Global Network Initiative (GNI) was established last year to guide Internet and technology companies in the defense of free speech through collaboration among corporations, academics, and human rights groups, including CPJ. One opportunity the Green Dam project provided was a chance for the GNI to provide concrete advice to the Internet and telecommunications industry struggling with the software’s implications. Like the Chinese, international players are realizing that cooperation can go a long way toward defeating an ill-conceived government directive.