China’s Censorship Battle: The Green Dam has a leak

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Yesterday was supposed to be an eventful day in China.  And it was, for unexpected reasons.

By July 1, all new computers sold in China, domestic and imported, were to be sold with pre-installed “filtering software.”  The government-mandated “Green Dam Youth Escort” software is rumored to effectively filter as much as 90% of internet porn (and other ‘offensive’ content, including of a political nature).   The software is intended to complement the existing “Great Firewall of China”, which already places severe restrictions on content accessibility within the country.

For the time being, however, the Chinese government’s intent to restrict freedoms and maintain control of user activity on the internet has been thwarted.  Various groups, activists and organizations bombarded the government with criticism of the software, attacking it as being a form of intrusive and ineffective censorship.  After consideration, the government has delayed the compulsory integration of the software indefinitely.  Although, some say it was technology limitations and tight deadlines, not social pressure, that forced the government to postpone the release, it is fairly clear that pressure from various parties had an impact.

The blogosphere has been abuzz with discussions about the software since it was announced in early June.  Perhaps by design, the announcement carried additional gravitas, nearly coinciding with the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, and leading up to the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).  At the same time, the government was tightening its grip by enforcing a media crackdown that prevented access to sites such as Twitter to minimize online chatter about the anniversary.

Once the Twitter ban was lifted, internet users had something else to talk about: The Green Dam.  Due to the Chinese government’s restriction of free speech, it has been easier for those in China to criticize the software itself, or even the government’s transparency for procurement of the software, rather than its purpose of censorship.  As a result, the censorship software sent the digital community into a frenzy, working to find flaws in the system and devising ways to outsmart it.  The software overzealously filters content, banning sites that use certain keywords, regardless of the context in which they are used.  In addition to filtering the internet, the software is apparently meant to restrict offline word processing.  The University of Michigan found additional security flaws in the software’s programming, that leave computer users vulnerable to malicious activity from sites they visit, including identity theft, installation of foreign code or spam.

Larger than the technical considerations of the product, are the social implications of the product; what rights do individuals’ have to obtain and create content?  How will China continue to modernize and maintain their vice grip on the flow of information within their borders?  China has had a long history of censorship – this is nothing new – but the internet has moved more quickly than they could follow.   The “green” in Green Dam is China’s term for an internet free of pornography and other offensive content, but from the government’s standpoint, this also includes information about political and spiritual groups, and, unsurprisingly, Tibetan independence.

According to China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the goal is to “construct a green, healthy, and harmonious internet environment, and preventing harmful information on the internet from influencing and poisoning young people.”  However, this statement doesn’t take into consideration people’s rights to collect information, a fundamental freedom.  China’s government will need to find a way to navigate through this new information age and its desire to establish firm media and social controls.

Many bloggers in China have made jokes about the software, and even mocked its relevance.  Some have suggested that the installation of software should be voluntary, to ensure that Chinese society is able to continue to modernize.  The censorship and fundamental rights debates will continue, but China’s digerati should not be underestimated – if the government does succeed in implementing the Green Dam eventually, they are bound to find a leak.