Today's Wall Street Journal has a provocative story headlined China Squeezes PC Makers: Beijing Is Set to Require Web Filter That Would Block Government-Censored Sites.
The picture above comes from the official website for "Green Dam Youth Escort," the software which according to the Journal, PC makers will be required to distribute along with their products sold in China. You can download it here, read the latest news about it here, and participate in a user forum here. The picture shows children sitting at their computers, being sheilded by a screen labeled "Green Dam Youth Escort green web surfing filtering software," held up by arms labeled "government" and "finance." The nasty looking black globls say "harmful website" and "harmful information."
According to this press release dated June 8th China time, after a period of testing and evaluation, the "Green Dam Youth Escort" software received government blessing in April to be made available for free public download. The press release says that the software has been downloaded over 3 million times since the end of March and is being used by approximately 2279 schools, with installation in nearly 518 thousand computers. It also says that 6957 websites have installed the software. It says that the Ministry of Information Industry is working with the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Finance, and the State Council Information Office to get the software installed in primary and middle schools across the country. The final sentence of the press release also announces the companies including Lenovo, Inspur, and Hedy have agreed to pre-install "Green Dam Youth Escort" in their products, with the software already installed in more than 52.7 million units. No foreign companies are mentioned.
According to the Journal:
The software was developed by Jinhui Computer System Engineering Co., with input from Beijing Dazheng Human Language Technology Academy Co.
Bryan Zhang, founder of Jinhui, said Green Dam operates similarly to software designed outside China to let parents block access to Web content inappropriate for children. Some computers sold in China already come with parental-control software, but it isn't government-mandated.
Mr. Zhang said his company compiles and maintains the list of blocked sites, which he says is limited to pornography sites. He said the software would allow the blocking of other types of content, as well as the collection of private user data, but that Jinhui would have no reason to do so. He also said the software can be turned off or uninstalled.
His company plans to transmit new banned addresses to users' PCs through an Internet update system similar to that used by operating-system software and antivirus programs.
The software requirement was outlined in a notice that was issued by China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology on May 19 but that hasn't yet been publicized by state media. The notice, a copy of which was seen by The Wall Street Journal, says PC makers must ship PCs to be sold in China as of July 1 with the Green Dam software "preloaded" -- pre-installed or enclosed on a CD.
The notice says PC producers will be required to report to the government how many PCs they have shipped with the software. The notice doesn't mention any punitive action for noncompliance.
The Journal also reports that the software can be disabled. I hope the Citizenlab or somebody will do a thorough test to answer at least two questions: How extensive is the list of filtered terms and does it really contain no political content as Mr. Zhang claims? Furthermore, how is the user information being collected and where is it being stored? Is it similar to the TOM-Skype system?
The Journal has reported that PC makers have the option to provide the software on disk with the computer instead of providing it pre-installed. If companies really are going to be required by Chinese law to provide this software with their products, it would make sense to appeal and lobby for the right to provide their own equivalent products (Microsoft Windows, for instance, already offers extensive parental controls - why are more needed?) If that fails, based on what I know now, companies wanting to adhere to the Global Network Initiative principles on free expression and privacy should at very minimum do the following (NOTE: THIS REPRESENTS MY OWN OPINION ONLY):
- Provide the software on disk rather than pre-installed.
- Include clear information to the user about what the software does, the nature and range of content it filters, how the user's personal information is collected and transmitted, where it is stored and who has access to it.
- Explain what the software does differently from existing parental controls already included in the operating system.
- Include further information about any further vulnerabilities the software contains which could open the user's computer to attack or snooping.
- Provide clear instructions on how to deactivate or uninstall the software along with the installation guidelines.
The point is to give the user as much information as possible so that he or she can make informed decisions about how to use (or opt not to use) the technology which the PC manufacturers are required by the government to include with their product.
The information on the "Green Dam Youth Escort" focuses on youth and schools, and the need to protect China's children from all the inappropriate content, predators, and other bad things that abound on the Internet. Of course, the argument over how far we should go in censoring the Internet in school systems - along with who decides what gets censored and to whom they are accountable - is not limited to authoritarian countries. A speaker at the Computers Freedom and Privacy conference in Washington DC last week pointed out that the ACLU is suing two Tennessee school districts in federal court for "unconstitutionally blocking students from accessing online information about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues." The case apparently came to light when a young man searching for information about college scholarships for lesbian and gay students discovered that the websites he wanted to access were blocked at his school.
The scale (national as opposed to certain school districts) as well as the extent to which Internet filtering is un-transparent and unaccountable is obviously several magnitudes greater in China. But the whole argument about civil liberties vs. "protecting our children" is universal - and very much unresolved around the globe, even in the most ostensibly liberal and democratic societies. Companies are going to need to come up with globally consistent strategies to deal with government demands for censorship, from China to Australia (which has been testing out its own government-mandated filtering) and everywhere in-between. Free expression and human rights advocates - not to mention policymakers - also need to have globally consistent positions. Otherwise it's just too easy for the Chinese [or insert another country name here] government to dismiss their criticisms and concerns as yet another predictable application of Western "double standards."