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Jun 18, 2009

Green Dam takes China's net censorship to scary new level

The Chinese government announced a new initiative to include software on ever PC sold in China that blocks porn. But problems with the software range from the silly to the absolutely terrifying.

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Chinese citizens are no strangers to Internet censorship. The Golden Shield (a.k.a the Great Firewall) keeps mainland residents guessing as to what will be banned on any given day. Youtube seems a perennial favorite, but Twitter and Flickr both enjoyed a spell in purgatory in the days leading up to the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen “Incident”.

More effective, though less often mentioned in the overseas press, is the chilling effect the censorship has on Chinese web content, whereby domestic web hosts are forced to register with the government and proactively censor the content on sites under their control. (Not every grass-roots campaign is silenced, for instance the support for cadre-killing waitress Deng Yujiao, whose online following indicates a rising resentment of the corruption of local party officials.)

Most Chinese seem to accept the censorship as a fact of life and do about as much political blogging as the average Aussie, i.e., none. Those lucky enough to work for foreign firms usually enjoy unrestricted access due to the common practice of channeling the entire corporate network through an overseas-homed VPN, the rest have been going about their chatting, shopping, cyber-vigilantism and celebrity-stalking without too many complaints.

This changed recently, however, when the Chinese government announced a new initiative — the “Green Dam Youth Escort”. This software, which would by law be included on every PC sold in China after 1 July, would “avoid the effects and on and the poisoning of our youth’s minds” by blocking access to “harmful” adult websites using a blacklist and real-time filtering of keywords and images. Although a huge win for the program’s vendor, many were immediately suspicious of the policy, and rightly so.

Independent analysis of the software found a multitude of problems, from the silly to the absolutely terrifying. The software’s password was trivial to change, it was riddled with security vulnerabilities that would make any Chinese PC vulnerable to hackers and contained components that were apparently copied from US-based filter manufacturer Solid Oak Software. The image analysis identified Garfield as porn but allowed dark-skinned porn stars through unmolested. As if that wasn’t enough, an analysis of the list of banned words contained in the software revealed that the majority were politically sensitive, not porn-related, such as “Tibet”.

The software was designed to terminate programs where these words were detected, not just the web browser. Entering banned terms into your word processor could cause the program to spontaneously close, losing all your data. And this behaviour persisted, even if you used the program’s “uninstaller”. The OpenNet Initiative also points out that with a simple software update, the software could become an even more intrusive tool, perhaps reporting your entire online activity back to government servers.

Coverage in the overseas press has been predictably withering, but the plan met an upsurge of domestic opposition as well. One local told me she would never again purchase a computer in China and she wasn’t alone — the vast majority of Chinese surveyed indicated no interest or outright hostility towards the software. US PC makers have sent a letter of protest to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology with their concerns, but will presumably comply by the deadline.

Perhaps in response to the outcry, a Ministry spokesperson “clarified” today that “PC users have the ‘final say’ over installing the filter and recent reports of the government compelling them to use the software was “a misunderstanding.” Whether this is an actual backdown remains to be seen, as it still seems that new PCs must come with the software, either pre-installed or on a CD. With only a few weeks to go, a disaster for the stability, security and of course privacy of Chinese PC users still seems terribly close.

Many of the security and unreliability problems found in Green Dam Youth Escort are inherent in any software filtering tool, which is why the use of such tools should always be optional. This also appears to be a particularly extreme instance where “protecting children’s minds” is used as a justification for something much more sinister. The next time you hear your own Government use the same phrase, take a close look at the policy in question.

Meanwhile, in a more mature part of the world, Sweden is set to join the rest of Scandinavia by abolishing film censorship. By 2011, a ratings body will be set up to classify films, with the default rating for unclassified films being the strongest rating, 15+. The contrast to Australia’s rolling series of moral panics could hardly be more stark.

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