China’s decision to postpone its requirement that all new personal computers sold in the country be loaded with web-filtering software is something of a climbdown. Beijing appears to have underestimated the backlash, at home and abroad, against its attempt to extend significantly the reach of its policing of the internet.
It should, ideally, regard this episode as an administrative glitch rather than a loss of face and take the opportunity to rethink its strategy. Assuming, that is, China has every intention of fully joining the modern information economy.
China had ordered all PC makers to install Green Dam/Youth Escort, ostensibly a filter against pornography, by yesterday. This evidently proved logistically impossible and has hopefully become too hot a political potato.
There are all manner of problems with the Green Dam project.
For a start, it appears to be a crude piece of blunderbuss software. Supposed to filter out pornography, it seems to zap innocent bystanders too, such as the cartoon character Garfield. More seriously, critics among consumers and the computer industry say it helps open the door to hackers. In addition, because Beijing appears to believe local computer producers and internet companies are more easily bent to the censors’ will, there is a strong whiff of protectionism – rightly contested by the US and the European Union.
Let us be clear. China, or any other state, has the right to take action against content it feels offends against its social and cultural mores. Many countries have safeguards against, for example, child pornography. But if the object of Green Dam were really to shield children from all explicitly sexual content, then there is a widely available range of tested web-filtering software that works.
China, by contrast, in recent weeks blocked access to many websites, including Hotmail and Twitter, ahead of the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Activists and researchers say Green Dam filters references to, say, the Falun Gong movement. It is an attempt to build a vast cyber dam alongside the existing Great Firewall.
The idea of government- sponsored filters on the desktop is a step too far, a chilling tool of social and political control. Taken to its extreme, it is an attempt to roll back the Web 2.0 revolution, the growth of user-generated content that turns users into producers as well as consumers. That would stifle a great deal more than political debate and dissent.