China Backs Down on Software

Authorities scrap plans to require software to block "unsuitable content" online.

2009.08.14
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greendam-falundafa-305.JPG A screenshot of China's Green Dam software shows a warning against viewing banned content.
RFA

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.

Original reporting in Mandarin by Shi Shan. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Additional reporting by Joshua Lipes. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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