Say No to Censorship

Sunday, June 14, 2009

THE INTERFACE looks harmless enough: a rabbit in a green field gazing up at an array of computer-related icons. But Green Dam-Youth Escort, the program the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology wants to mandate for every computer shipped to China as of July 1, is the worst kind of spyware.

Created through state sponsorship at a cost of nearly $6 million, the program is ostensibly no more than a filter to protect children from inappropriate Web content. But examination reveals that it censors far more. Green Dam maintains a database of censored political terms and sites far larger than its list of pornographic materials. Beyond Web censorship, it shuts down word processing programs whenever users type "Falun Gong," prevents the sending of e-mails whose content it deems incendiary, maintains a record of users' Internet activity and remains active even after being shut down. Such software far exceeds anything needed to protect children and provides the government with unparalleled ability to monitor and control users' access to information.

Computer manufacturers need to say no. Aside from the pragmatic concerns, the software is poorly programmed in ways that could render the entire Chinese computer system vulnerable to hackers. Bundling it with every personal computer would be irresponsible for its effect on consumers. The precedent this sets for state censorship is deeply troubling. Situating the locus of censorship in the PC as opposed to a central network restriction or firewall that users could evade is an unheard-of step for state monitoring with dire implications for the freedom of Chinese computer users.

The facts that the deadline is so early, that the software is so vulnerable and that 80 percent of Chinese consumers polled have already declared their unwillingness to use it will make it easier for manufacturers to push back against the ministry's demands. But any short-term success must lead to a broader conversation about the obligation of multinational corporations to protect free speech and free access to information. China's 1.3 billion computer users are a seductive market, and without an industry-wide commitment, a restriction rejected by one manufacturer might be accepted by another. In this case, China's demands are both impractical and unjust. Western companies should refuse to meet them, and not only on pragmatic grounds. A unified statement of principle is needed.

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