Iran is not the only 20th century totalitarian regime struggling to overcome 21st century technology. Yesterday the Chinese government was forced into an embarrassing backflip when it overturned its directive that all computers sold in China after 1 July should include the Green Dam Youth Escort Web filtering software. Government mouthpiece China Daily now reported that the Green Dam software is not compulsory on all computers. It says users will still need to have the software on an installation disk but it is up to individuals to install the software. This effectively means it will be ignored. China Daily now says it all was merely "a misunderstanding.”
If it was a misunderstanding, it was one that has backfired spectacularly on the government. Green Dam is net nanny software. Chinese authorities had claimed it was necessary to protect people from pornography but the software also blocks politically sensitive terms and can be updated remotely to filter out other “undesired” items. But the software has some undesired features of its own. It is spyware which uses unencrypted data which can be easily hacked. It is also not robust with known versions not working for Firefox or Safari and is also not compatible with Macs or Linux machines. Like the controversial proposed Australian “clean feed” it is also resource hungry and may impact performance. Worst of all, it may be pirated software.
This ham-fisted drama provoked exactly what the government didn't want: a very public controversy about censorship. Chinese journalist Michael Anti says the intrusive filtering treated all consumers like children. "China is a kindergarten, that is the basic logic behind this," says Michael Anti, a Chinese journalist and popular microblogger. "It's stupid. It's so stupid." Meanwhile, Hong Kong-based Internet scholar Rebecca McKinnon said the debacle has turned into the laughing stock of China.
On her blog, McKinnon got hold of a document from an anonymous source ordering Green Dam’s installation on all PCs. The software’s black list contains about 2,700 words related to pornography and about 6,500 “politically sensitive” words. According to McKinnon’s document locally made and imported PCs are required to pre-install the latest version of "Green Dam Youth Escort" by 1 July. PC Manufacturers and Green Dam’s developers Jinhui Computer System Engineering are then required to provide monthly reports to China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) about sales figures and the number of copies installed.
But there are serious questions about the legitimacy of the software, beyond the censorship ramifications. According to The Register, the software was pirated from an American software maker Solid Oak and also uses open-source code without displaying the proper license. US software maker Solid Oak is seeking injunctions against Jinhui and its US suppliers claiming that Green Dam code uses libraries tagged with the name of its CyberSitter application and makes calls back to Solid Oak servers.
The British online IT magazine also warns the software poses a massive security risk as a single point of failure. If it were possible to hack into the code, says The Register, Green Dam could be used to create a huge malicious software robot. It could also be used to create targeted attacks on government computers. It is probably this latter threat that the government wants fixed up before it proceeds with making it compulsory.
Green Dam is aimed at supporting the server-side and ISP-level filters, the so-called Great Firewall of China and the Golden Shield. It came about as paranoid Communist officials realised that even with all their sophisticated surveillance technology, users could still by-pass government censorship. Bryan Zhang, founder of Jinhui, said Green Dam operates similarly to net nanny software to let parents block access to Web content inappropriate for children. Some computers sold in China already come with parental-control software, but it isn't government-mandated. But Jinhui is unlikely to take its current issues lying down. Zhang stands to make a lot of money when each of China 250,000 million Internet users are forced to install paid upgrades of Green Dam in a year’s time. The high level of user ridicule will need to be sustained over the coming months to compete with serious money and political paranoia if it is to ensure the Chinese internet is not completely damned.