U.S. Presses China on Censorship

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said the filtering software
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said the filtering software "poses a serious barrier to trade." (By Joshua Roberts -- Bloomberg News)
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By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 25, 2009

Senior U.S. officials are pressuring the Chinese government to shelve a proposed rule that would require all computers shipped in China to be equipped with Web-filtering software, citing concerns that the order may violate China's commitments under the World Trade Organization.

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke raised the objections, the most serious so far, in joint letters to two Chinese ministries yesterday.

"China is putting companies at an untenable position by requiring them, with virtually no public notice, to pre-install software that appears to have broad-based censorship implications and network security issues," Locke said in a separate statement.

The filtering software requirement, which is scheduled to go into effect July 1, was designed to block pornographic content, according to Chinese officials. But Internet researchers have found that the software can also filter political content, expanding China's already robust efforts to restrict access to the Internet.

WTO agreements seek to prevent governments from establishing trade barriers. In yesterday's letter, the U.S. officials invited China to discuss with industry and government officials ways to promote parental control without restricting user choice, freedom of expression and the free flow of information.

The letter, sent to China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and Ministry of Commerce, also said the software could make computers more vulnerable to security breaches.

Kirk said in a statement that the filtering technology, also known as Green Dam software, is "technically flawed" and "poses a serious barrier to trade."

"Protecting children from inappropriate content is a legitimate objective, but this is an inappropriate means and is likely to have a broader scope," Kirk said.

Officials at the Chinese embassy could not be reached for comment.

Online surveillance researchers say the filtering software has the capabilities to block political and religious content often associated with China's sophisticated national filtering system, referred to as the Great Firewall of China.

A recent report released by the OpenNet Initiative, a joint project by the University of Toronto, and Harvard, Cambridge and Oxford universities, found that the software product hampers a computer's performance by shutting down Web browsers and applications without warning, in addition to other, more serious security problems.

The report also found that "if implemented as proposed, the effect would be to increase the reach of Internet censorship to the edges of the network, adding a new and powerful control mechanism to the existing filtering system."

The filtering software can be turned off or uninstalled, and the settings can be adjusted. But OpenNet Initiative researchers argue that a large number of users never change default settings, and the complex design of the program "makes it very difficult for even expert users to understand what the system is doing, let alone understand the impact and scope of auto-updates and changes."

Staff writer Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.

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