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China's internet censors Dammed if you do

June 29, 2009

Jun 25th 2009 The Economist

THE internet is full of stuff of which China's government disapproves. Yet
there are 300m Chinese internet-users. Keeping the two apart has embroiled
the Chinese authorities in a long cat-and-mouse struggle. Service-providers
and internet cafés are closely supervised, and a wide array of filtering
mechanisms already overlays the national internet architecture. A fresh
initiative goes one step further. From July 1st every personal computer sold
in China will have to come with new filtering software called Green Dam
Youth Escort.

It has yet to be decided whether Green Dam must be pre-loaded, or left on a
disk for users to install. But it has sparked an uproar. Chinese internet
users have vented online their spleen at being nannied. Hackers are reported
to have mounted repeated attacks on the website of Green Dam's developer. It
has also received more than 1,000 harassing phone-calls, including death
threats.

An American firm, Solid Oak Software, claims Green Dam includes stolen
copyrighted code from one of its products, and has launched legal action.
Computer makers are understandably reluctant to abet a massive censorship
scheme, or to anger their customers with unwelcome software. Moreover,
independent experts at the University of Michigan found Green Dam to be
riddled with outdated code and security flaws that would leave computers at
risk.

America's Commerce Department this week lodged a formal complaint with the
Chinese government, asking it to rescind the new rule. The government
stresses Green Dam's role in protecting young people from "unhealthy" and
"poisonous" pornographic and violent content. But the Michigan experts found
that it is also scans text for "politically sensitive" phrases.

Whether to do with Tibet, Taiwan, or Falun Gong, a spiritual sect, there are
plenty of these, leading to sites deemed "harmful" by China. In a year of
harder economic times and sensitive political anniversaries, the authorities
are especially edgy. The thin and cautious reporting in the press of events
in Iran suggests they are also nervous about access to news of political
protest elsewhere.

Despite the opposition, however, which includes a grassroots attempt to
organise an internet boycott in China on July 1st, the government remains
undaunted, promising that technical flaws will be fixed and that Green Dam
will go forward. It has also opened a second front, lashing out at Google
for including a feature in its Chinese service that automatically completes
search-query terms-it complains that this can lead users to sites containing
pornography.

Google has long struggled to reconcile its corporate credo ("Don't be evil")
with the onerous demands of China's internet regulators. It has promised to
renew its efforts to keep in line with Chinese standards. But the company
also has fair cause to wonder why it has been singled out. Its main Chinese
competitor, Baidu, is just as good at finding smut.
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