BEIJING — Under fire since it was revealed globally, China's plans for mandatory filtering on PCs appears to have been scrapped and is now optional for users.
China Daily reports a government official from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology stated: "PC makers are only required to save the set-up files of the program in the hard drives of the computers, or provide CD-ROMs containing the program with their PC packages."
"The users have the final say on the installation of the Green Dam Youth Escort, so it is misleading to say the government compels PC users to use the software," the official said. “The government's role is limited to having the software developed and providing it free."
Clearly, the Chinese government is now backing off.
According to the Associated Press, another unnamed official from the same agency told the news service that the controversial Green Dam Youth Escort software is "not compulsory." Nonetheless, it will still be preinstalled in or included on a disc with all future PCs sold in China.
As reported by AVN.com, the government initially issued an announcement that the software must be included with all machines sold starting July 1, an announcement met with public disdain and protests in the private sector from firms such as U.S. computer makers Dell and Hewlett-Packard. Then, California software company Oak claimed China's Zhengzhou-based Jinhui had stolen code from its porn-filter programs designed for parents to protect children in the U.S.
Jinhui, which is said to have developed Green Dam with the People's Liberation Army's Information Engineering University and the Ministry of Public Security, has disputed the charge of stealing Solid Oak's coding.
Also, computer scientists at the University of Michigan said in an urgent posting re-published by whistleblower site Wikileaks that they found Green Dam "contains serious security vulnerabilities due to programming errors. Any website a Green Dam user visits can take control of the PC. We recommend that users protect themselves by uninstalling Green Dam immediately."
China has nearly 300 million Internet users, more than any other nation, and will soon be the largest market in the world for PCs as well. The government has already clamped down on content deemed "vulgar," such as porn sites, while also using anti-porn and child-protection campaigns as a way to squash political and social unrest.
A Beijing lawyer, Li Fangping, said he sent a request to the government tech and information ministry last week asking for a public hearing on the filter mandate, but has not received a response.
"This is such an important matter that we hope they will hold a public hearing, including regular citizens, academics, lawyers, software developers, computer technicians and other relevant people, to meet together to discuss this problem," he told the Wall Street Journal.
Britain's Guardian newspaper reports previously secret documents published online and by hackers revealed an embedded blacklist of politically sensitive words in the program as well as a system hole that could allow remote users to control the actual user's computer, along with a defective pornography algorithm that would bring faulty filtering of such content.
Wikileaks has published what it claims are various documents related to the software development, from Jinhui's initial bid to create the software, dating back to April 2008, to the alleged political keywords, such as including "Falun Gong,” an outlawed spiritual group, and “6.4,” the anniversary of the brutal Tiananmen Square crackdown.
According to The Guardian, China's government employs remote servers to block content, but some content slips through via proxies or frequently moving websites. They believe Green Dam can tighten the constraints. The software also monitors and restricts the time that minors spend on instant-messaging and social networking sites, "to prevent them from becoming addicted,” according to a state document.
Reportedly, the software's blocking is haphazard and confounding; as various media outlets have noted, cartoon characters such as Garfield are blocked, while some niche porn sneaks through.
An Internet specialist and a prominent critic of China's policies, Rebecca McKinnon, an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong's Journalism and Media Studies Centre, isn't surprised that the government backed down.
"The people who clearly made a very bad decision are trying to avoid becoming the laughingstock of China by suppressing the mounting public scorn, but they're unlikely to be successful," she told the paper. "If they had a more transparent, accountable and democratic policy-making process the outcome would not have been so ridiculous, so unpopular and such a blow to their credibility."
On her latest blog, McKinnon writes, "It seems like there must have been some kind of policy tug-of-war going on these past few days. Late last week the Communist Party's Propaganda Department sent around an edict to the media instructing them to say nice things about Green Dam and stop being so critical. But Caijing and other media continued running critical articles, and then the People's daily website, Renminwang, launched a whole feature section on Saturday with full coverage of the Green Dam story — pro and con."
As McKinnon recently noted, China has a long history of attempting to push through new policies targeting tech, telecom and media and then slowly backing down.
For more about China and Green Dam, please see these previous AVN.com reports.