June 15, 2009
Green Dam, which blocks access to porn and politically sensitive websites, will not be compulsory, state media reports.
By Jonathan Watt (The Guardian)
The Chinese government appears to have backed down in the face of public opposition to its plans for mandatory installation of censorship software on all new computers.
The Green Dam Youth Escort program, which restricts access to pornography and politically sensitive websites, was due to be compulsorily incorporated in the hard drives of all new machines sold after 1 July, but the state-run media announced today that it would instead be an optional package.
The softening of tone appears designed to head off a wave of criticism about the program, which has brought the government culture of information control into an unusually harsh domestic spotlight.
But it is unlikely to allay suspicions about the developer, Jinhui – a military-backed software firm – and about Green Dam, which tightens government control of the internet at the level of individual computers.
Secret documents published online and investigations by hackers have revealed an embedded blacklist of politically sensitive words in the program, a hole in the system that potentially allows remote users to take control of an individual's computer and a defective pornography algorithm.
Wikileaks has published what it claims is the initial bidding document to develop the software by Jinhui Computer System Engineering. In the April 2008 paper, the Henan-based company promised the ministry of industry and information that it could provide international standards of blocking technology to restrict access to pornography and other "harmful information".
A separate file purportedly contains a coded blacklist of forbidden words, including "Falun Gong", an outlawed spiritual group, and 6.4, the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
Jinhui strengthened suspicions that the primary goal of the new software was to fill holes in the Great Firewall when it boasted that three layers of filtering would be effective "regardless of changing URLs and languages".
Amid growing controversy over the apparent underhand censorship, the state media are now downplaying the compulsory aspect of the software. "PC makers are only required to save the set-up files of the program in the hard drives of the computers, or provide CD-Roms containing the program with their PC packages," the English-language China Daily quoted an official saying yesterday .
"The users have the final say on the installation of the Green Dam Youth Escort, so it is misleading to say the government compels PC users to use the software … The government's role is limited to having the software developed and providing it free."
Chinese language media have yet to make similar reports. In any case, netizens will take a lot of persuading. A survey last week by China's largest portal Sina found more than 80% respondents opposed to Green Dam.
The Chinese government relies on remote servers to block content, but many items slip through via proxies or frequently moving websites. Green Dam has the potential to tighten this.
Under a 12m yuan (£1m) bid to provide 12m units, Jinhui's bid promises to maintain a database of more than 100,000 forbidden sites that will be updated at least twice a month and linked to computers with Green Dam.
The software also monitors and restricts the time that minors spend on instant messaging and social networking sites, such as MSN and QQ "to prevent them from becoming addicted", according to the document.
The bid also includes a detailed explanation of the formula used to distinguish pornography from other images. One element of the algorithm, CH = (EG + EP) /2, is designed to identify suspicious densities of skin colour. To demonstrate the supposed effectiveness of this method, the bid document contrasts pictures of blow jobs and babies.
These claims are now being torn to pieces.
The Southern Weekend newspaper has mocked the software for blocking Garfield cartoons but allowing dark-skinned porn.
Parts of the program may have been stolen. Solid Oak Software of the United States alleges that parts of its CyberSitter filtering software, including a pornography blacklist, are being used in Green Dam.
The apparent act of software piracy was revealed in a report by University of Michigan researchers, who also exposed security vulnerabilities created by Green Dam. "Any website the user visits can exploit these problems to take control of the computer," the report noted. "This could allow malicious sites to steal private data, send spam, or enlist the computer in a botnet." A botnet is a network of connected computers that can be used to send a barrage of spam or launch cyber attacks.
The government has countered such negative reports with positive propaganda. In the latest salvo this week, ChinaTechNews praised Green Dam as a means to prevent users from "visiting potentially unsafe areas of the web". It praised Jinhui for seizing a business opportunity just as Microsoft had done in the early 1990s and said the foreign criticism was stirred up by non-Chinese security firms like Symantech.
To allay security concerns, the ministry of information has ordered the developer to produce patches that prevent websites from remotely seizing control of users' computers.
Online reaction has been furious. One bulletin board, Fuck the Great Firewall, contains a long list of rants. Another website offers anti-Green Dam software. Gay and lesbian groups have initiated an online petition against the software, which they fear will target them.
Even the usually more compliant official media have criticised the censors' plans.
"The government ought to delegate rights to individuals and start becoming a service-oriented government rather than a controlling one," noted a columnist in the Economic Observer.
The Beijing News asked why people without children were forced to install software intended for minors and why two unknown companies won the bid for this national software.
Investigative journalists claim several of the patents in the software have been channelled from the People's Liberation Army via a Jinhui executive named Li Bicheng, who also works for the PLA Information Engineering University in Zhengzhou. Zhao Huiqin, chairwoman of the board of Jinhui, also graduated from a Military Engineering Collage in Harbin. Under military law, servicemen are forbidden from commercial activity.
Lawyer Li Fangping has filed a lawsuit against Green Dam. "The impact of this software will be huge. It will violate the rights of many citizens," he said. "But people were not told anything about it until a few weeks before its launch. This seriously violated the citizen's right to be informed."
In the face of this unprecedented public backlash, Rebecca MacKinnon, an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong's Journalism and Media Studies Centre, said the authorities were under pressure to climb down.
"The people who clearly made a very bad decision are trying to avoid becoming the laughing stock of China by suppressing the mounting public scorn but they're unlikely to be successful," she said.
"If they had a more transparent, accountable and democratic policy-making process the outcome would not have been so ridiculous, so unpopular and such a blow to their credibility."
Further face-saving compromises may be difficult given the apparent backing for Green Dam by the propaganda and military. But the fiasco cannot fail to have reminded the authorities of the perils of ignoring their public.
"The significance of this week's discussion is that many agencies within the government prefer to make policy by fiat instead of soliciting opinion first and this time that approach has come back to bite them," said Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing-based analyst of Chinese politics.
Thanks to Johnothan Watt and The Guardian for covering this material. Copyright remains with the aforementioned.