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China Backs Down on Software

August 26, 2009

Authorities scrap plans to require software to
block "unsuitable content" online.
RFA
August 14, 2009

HONG KONG -- China’s telecommunications czar has
said the government’s controversial Green Dam
anti-porn software, which officials say aims to
protect youth online, is “not compulsory,” in a
major climb-down after a storm of protest over
privacy and censorship on the Web.

"After you install the software, you can use it
or you can decide not to use it," industry and
information technology minister Li Yizhong told reporters in a news conference.

Last month, China announced an indefinite delay
in enforcement of the requirement that computer
makers must pre-install controversial Internet
filtering software on all new computers sold in China.

Now, it appears that while schools and Internet
cafes must run the program, individual private
users won’t be required to do so.

The Green Dam Youth Escort program, which the
government says aims to shield Chinese youths
from online pornography, sparked an outcry inside
China and around the world, along with charges
that the software’s true intent is blocking content Beijing deems subversive.

An investigation by RFA technicians into Green
Dam revealed that the application saves a
screenshot of a user’s browsing history every three minutes.

These images reveal each page viewed by the user
and are stored as files within the application,
which can be accessed by an outside server.

Warning signs

The application censors both Internet browsing
and access to files a user might read or create on his or her computer.

For example, if a text file containing a
reference to unauthorized material is opened or
typed, the application will immediately close the
file and display a warning sign informing the
user that they are viewing “forbidden content.”

"The Green Dam project caused a strong reaction
in society after it was announced, especially
after the code was decrypted and people
discovered that the software wasn’t about
protecting against pornographic material but that
it was also aimed at political content, and that
there was also a possibility that private data
about the user might be transmitted to
surveillance software,” said Xiao Qiang, director
of the China Internet Project and an adjunct
professor at the Graduate School of Journalism,
University of California, Berkeley.

Xiao, who also founded and edits the bilingual
Web site China Digital Times, said Chinese
officials initially argued very strongly in favor of Green Dam.

"A lot of strong opposition was heard among
Chinese netizens, domestic media, and the
international community. Under such
circumstances, the telecommunications ministry
had no choice but to call a halt to the installation of Green Dam,” he said.

"Now it is clarifying that it isn’t compulsory."

Xiao said various government departments had come
up with their own measures under the aegis of the
government’s overall Internet control policy.

"Green Dam was rushed out, and it had a lot of
technical holes in it as well, so it became a
target. Behind Green Dam is an entire system and a huge problem,” he said.

International opposition

U.S. officials cited warnings by computer experts
at the time that the software could cause security problems for users.

The plan drew a letter in opposition from 22
international business organizations to Premier
Wen Jiabao, along with a protest from the
European Union and a U.S. warning that the Green
Dam requirement could breach China’s free-trade
obligations under the World Trade Organization.

Li also declined to answer part of a question
posed at Thursday’s news conference, which asked
about surveillance software that makes use of
loopholes in cell phone operating software to use
phones to track and listen to users.

Gong Shujia, an expert in electronic
communications at George Mason University in the
United States, said Chinese cell phone software
had long been rife with viruses, alerting the
authorities to cell phones’ security vulnerabilities.

"Cell phones are getting smarter and smarter, and
there are likely to be some loopholes left over
in the software from when it is written, some
‘back doors’ from which you can get into the cell
phone, and perhaps switch it on and use it as a listening device,” Gong said.

"If you switch off your cell phone and you don’t
take the battery out, sometimes it is possible
for it to be switched on by a remote control device," he added.

Smarter phones

"This sort of technique is really very widespread
on the Chinese mainland. It can be used to find
out a person’s location, and also to listen in.
Around the time of the Olympics, China used these
methods to detain a great many people," Gong said.

A U.S. computer trade association welcomed Li’s clarification on Green Dam.

"China’s decision to block enforcement of Green
Dam for PCs breaks what would have been a logjam
on the free flow of information," Ed Black,
president and chief executive of the Computer and
Communications Industry Association, said in a statement.

"It’s a wise move and a win for free speech, access to information and trade."

Brian Milburn, president of California-based
Solid Oak Software Inc. which has claimed that
Green Dam made unauthorized use of the code in
one of its products, welcomed the decision but said "it’s still out there."

"If the Chinese government thought that was a
useful thing and they wanted to provide something
for free for everybody, there is absolutely
nothing wrong with that," Milburn said in an
interview. "It’s the way they did it."

University of Michigan researchers discovered the
alleged piracy, Milburn said, and Solid Oak later
ascertained Green Dam made unauthorized use of
its CYBERsitter software, billed as a
"family-friendly parental-controls product" to
protect children from harmful content.
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