Cracks appear in China's Green Dam

By Wu Zhong, China Editor

HONG KONG - Beijing's new policy that all computers sold on the Chinese market be pre-installed with software to block "obscene" and "harmful" information has aroused public controversy at home and abroad.

Western media has said the measure will further restrict Internet freedoms in China. Worse: a company from the United States says the software uses stolen programming code.

But few in China are bothered by this. The Chinese public is more upset that the new policy violates consumer freedoms, and many say the bidding process may have involved corruption. Some are
asking why the government spent so much - 40 million yuan ($5.9 million) - to purchase the software, and why this particular filtering software was selected.

On June 9, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology publicized a memo dated May 19 on its official website:

To build a green, healthy and harmonious Internet environment, to prevent "harmful" online information from influencing and poisoning young people, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the Central Office for Promoting Spiritual Civilization and the Ministry of Finance have spent funds from the central government's budget, in accordance with the Government Procurement Law, to buy out the right to use the Internet filtering software - Green Dam-Youth Escort - and after-sales services for one year, so that it can be used by the whole of society free of charge.

The policy required that from July 1, all computers on sale in the Chinese market, whether they are manufactured domestically or overseas, must be pre-installed with the software. The Ministry briefed computer manufacturers and importers of the new policy before the circular was posted.

Two days before the missive was publicized, the Wall Street Journal broke the news, saying the move "could give government censors unprecedented control over how Chinese users access the Internet".

The Journal continued:

The Chinese government has a history of censoring a broad range of Web content. The new requirement could force PC [Personal Computer] manufacturers to choose between refusing a government order in a major market, or opening themselves to charges of abetting censorship.

China already operates an extensive Internet-filtering system, commonly called the Great Firewall, which blocks access to a range of content, from pornography to politically sensitive sites ... But that system blocks content at the network level, and many users circumvent it. The new method could give the government a way to tighten its control, say foreign industry officials who have examined the software ... "

Chinese media promptly denied the Journal report and similar charges.

A lengthy commentary in the June 10 edition of the Global Times, a sister publication of the Communist Party's flagship the People's Daily, said the Western media reports were biased.

"Western media always views from another perspective any measure China takes for security considerations. In fact, the prerequisite of opening up and transparency of Internet is the protection of healthy and safe use of the Internet. All countries now attach great importance to Internet security. It is meaningless for the Wall Street Journal to make such a bluff," the editorial quoted Li Wei, director of the Security and Strategy Institute under Chinese Academy of Contemporary International Relations, as saying.

It also quoted Zhang Chenmin, general manager of Zhengzhou-based Jinhui Computer System Engineering Com - the firm that developed the software - as saying, "This is a pure commercial deal, nothing to do with the government ... The software is developed by the company to protect the underage surfing the Internet ... Parents could enable it when their kinds go online, and disable it when they surf."

But an analysis by online-filtering watchdog OpenNet Initiative found that Green Dam can monitor activities outside of web browsing and can terminate applications. "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," stated the report.

Zhang said the software could be easily removed and stressed that, in principle, his software is the same as many others available in the United States for protecting Internet-surfing youths.

No sooner had Zhang said this than a US company claimed that the Chinese filtering software contains stolen programming code. California-based Solid Oak Software told the Associated Press on June 12 that parts of its CyberSitter filtering software, which is designed for parents, had been used in Green Dam-Youth Escort.
Solid Oak's founder, Brian Milburn, said he planned to seek an injunction against the Chinese developer that built the software, but acknowledged that it's new legal terrain for his company.

Zhang denied the allegation in plain terms. "That's impossible. We didn't steal their programming code," he told the BBC.

Still, the Internet freedom and intellectual property rights aspects of the story, are not what has China incensed. The Chinese public has objected more to restrictions being put on their freedom of choice, and the government's decision to buy the software with public funds. Official Chinese media has freely reported sharply worded criticism of this from the public.

"I have the freedom to decide whether or not to install a lock on my home," Dr Ma Guangyuan, from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the state-run Xinhua news agency. "It is reasonable for parents to worry about keeping their children's web environment porn-free, but this is not an excuse for asking that all new computers be preloaded with the software - because I can do it myself."

Lu Jingjian, a director with China Computer Federation, said there should be a public hearing if the government wants to require a uniform software package.

A signed commentary on the outspoken China Youth Daily questioned why the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology had not publicized the bidding for the porn-filtering software.

"The filtering function of the Green Dam-Youth Escort is not new technology and many free anti-virus software provide similar services. But more than 40 million yuan [US $5.8 million] has been spent in buying one-year long use of the software. How did the Ministry [of Industry and Information Technology] conduct the public bidding and why didn't it publicize the process of the bidding?" asked the editorial.

"If many users do not use or uninstall the anti-porn software after they buy the computers, that would be a huge waste of taxpayer's money," Ma Guangyuan was quoted by Xinhua as saying.

The China Youth Daily commentary questioned whether the move was legal: "Which law gives the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology the power to make such a decision?"

Even though the filtering software does not enable the government to monitor Internet surfing, users can freely dispose of it, and even if it is well-written and effective, "this does not give the authorities the power to compel everyone to install it".

The commentary continued:

We cannot force every user to buy a 3G [third generation] mobile handset just because 3G is more advanced. Even if 3G handsets are to be given away free of charge, one's right not to accept it must be respected.

The [Ministry of Industry and Information Technology] may advocate this particular software, it may promote the use of it inside the ministry. But it has no power to forcefully intrude into ordinary people's private lives, no matter how good its intention is. If it must use its public power to intervene in people's private life, then it must first seek legal authorization. Legislation is needed to give the ministry the power to compel the pre-installation of the software ... The "good intentions" of a government department must not hurt people's freedom of choice.

Some bloggers suspect this project is another example of collusion between officials and business people. After one year of free use, users have to pay to update the software. Given the huge number of Chinese Internet users (253 million in mid-2008), future profits of Jinhui Computer System Engineering Co could be astronomical.

The software has naturally become a target of public censure. Many bloggers have tested it and pointed out its problems and flaws, such as mistaken filtering, slow surfing speed, or forcing the computer to switch off. Some claim the program makes a computer more vulnerable to hackers' attacks. (In fact, the developer has been ordered to rush software patches to address security problems, China Daily reported on June 14.)

"The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology told us to make the software safer as soon a series of security vulnerabilities were found," Zhang Chenmin was quoted as saying. Zhang admitted that hackers could attack Internet users through the software due to systemic flaws, "just like any other software of this type".

The company's programmers are working non-stop in collaboration with domestic anti-virus program experts, such as Ruixing, to develop software patches that can be downloaded for free, Zhang said.

"If Green Dam-Youth Escort is widely installed in its current form, it will be a disaster for computer security in China," J Alex Halderman, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at University of Michigan, told China Daily.

This is yet another example of a lack of transparency in government operations arousing widespread public suspicion. Given the strong backlash, it appears most Chinese will vote with their mouse and remove the software from their computers.