Has China's Green Dam burst?

Despite official claims to the contrary, the Green Dam software was discovered to be blocking more than just pornography

China did a sudden about-face late yesterday and decided to delay its controversial requirement that all computers sold after July 1 must come with Web filtering software. Called Green Dam Youth Escort, the software package was designed to stop youths from accessing online pornography. Chinese officials had previously stood firm in their decision to enforce the Green Dam requirement, but then China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology announced on Tuesday it had decided to delay mandatory installation of Green Dam, according to Reuters.

Green Dam: It's Not Just for Porn

Despite official claims to the contrary, the Green Dam software was discovered to be blocking more than just pornography. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that Green Dam regularly restricted access to Web pages containing words related to Falun Gong -- a semi-religious movement that has been branded a cult by the Chinese government.

University of Michigan researchers also discovered that Green Dam would block sites related to a small number of political keywords. Entering the phrase, "evil Jiang Zemin" (Jian Zemin is a former Chinese president) for instance, caused a pop-up message to appear labeling the Web content "harmful." Green Dam would then close the browser window, making it impossible for the user to see the Website. Researchers also found that Green Dam made computers more susceptible to malicious attacks and infiltration from hackers.

Green Dam Protests

As the deadline approached domestic and international protests against the Chinese plan grew stronger. Twenty-two chambers of commerce and trade groups from the United States, Europe and Japan sent letters to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to reconsider the Green Dam project. The United States Government was also heavily involved in urging China to reconsider. U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk sent a letter of protest, and representatives from the State Department, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and the Commerce Department have met with Chinese officials in Beijing to express concern over the Green Dam software.

Inside the country, groups of activist have been threatening public protests, lawsuits and other forms of civil disobedience. A group of anonymous protesters calling themselves "netizens" last week posted an open letter online to Chinese officials. Influenced by similar messages from the American-based online group Anonymous -- the group responsible for last year's cyber attacks against the Church of Scientology -- the "netizen" letter was distributed on Chinese blogs and bulletin boards. "Hello, Internet censorship institutions of the Chinese government," the letter began. "We hereby decide that from July 1 2009 we will start a full-scale global attack on all censorship systems you control."

Protests against Green Dam also came from prominent Chinese figures like Ai Weiwei -- the architect of the Olympic "Bird's Nest" stadium -- who asked his Twitter followers to boycott the Internet for a full twenty-four hours on July 1.

PC Makers Not Ready

CNN reports that despite the Chinese decision to have Green Dam either installed on the computer or included as a CD-ROM with machines sold after today, many PC makers were not going to be able to meet the deadline. Few machines had the program preinstalled, and many manufacturers wanted more time to test Green Dam for security flaws. So even if Chinese officials had decided to enforce the deadline, today's outcome may have been the same due to delays from computer manufacturers. China announced the Green Dam requirement in early June, giving manufacturers less than a month to prepare.

Protest Morphs into Party

One protest against Green Dam was scheduled to take place at what Reuters describes as "a trendy art zone café." The protesters arrived in T-shirts making fun of Green Dam, and were preparing for a daylong boycott of the Internet to protest the censorship software. But as news spread of Green Dam's delay, the protest quickly became a victory celebration.

Despite apparent jubilation over China's censorship apparatus, however, some were wary. Even though Chinese officials may be hesitant to revisit Green Dam in the face of domestic and international pressure, the project has merely been delayed and not canceled. It's possible that China could just let Green Dam quietly die and move on, but that outcome is far from guaranteed.

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Ian Paul

PC World (US online)
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