"This is flat-out corruption," wrote one infuriated netizen on China's popular website Tianya.com. "If a government keeps dumbing down its people like this, how can it ever be respected by the rest of the world?" wrote another. "Our society is moving backwards." (Read "China's 'Netizens' Take On the Government.")
The object of this vitriol was the announcement this week by China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) that after July 1, all computers sold in the country would have to have Internet filtering software pre-installed. The remarks exemplify the depth of the outrage felt by many of China's Internet users over what they see as an unprecedented intrusion into their digital lives, even for a government that routinely polices the Web for socially and politically sensitive content and communications. (See pictures of China's electronic waste village.)
Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang defended the government's decision to require computer makers to install the filtering program, called Green Dam Youth Escort, in order to protect young Chinese from "unhealthy content including pornography and violence." But a survey on the popular news portal ifeng.com showed that 75.8% of the participants thought it might impinge on their privacy; 62% didn't think it would prevent teenagers from viewing "improper" content. As many as 90% are not willing to pay an extra fee for the designated software, and 73% said they would try to uninstall the software when they bought new computers.
The announcement left computer manufacturers scrambling to work out how to comply, and what the implications might be for their sales in China's fast-growing market. "It totally blindsided the industry," says Bryan Ma, a Singapore-based senior researcher with industry analysts IDC. Some computer makers aren't sure they can meet the July 1 starting date. "It'll be interesting to see what happens if some people say they can't physically get it done in time," Ma says.
Free speech advocates were also caught off guard. Some complained that the move was yet another brick in China's notorious Great Firewall, the government's ever-expanding system of website blocking, word-recognition software and other surveillance and censorship activities that severely restrict what Chinese netizens can access. But everyone is in the dark about the details: how the software will be installed, whether it was possible to remove it from computers, whether scofflaws will be penalized and how the rules would be enforced. "The biggest challenge right now is that we don't have any details," says Ma of IDC.
The announcement from MIIT did specify that the software be pre-installed on "a partition in the PC's hard drive or in an accompanying CD," leaving open the question of whether hardware makers could simply ship copies of the program with computers to fulfill their responsibilities, without having to go through the more onerous and expensive process of loading the software on every machine shipped in China. While major computer manufacturers such as Lenovo and Hewlett-Packard told reporters they are seeking more information and working with the government, there were signs of possible opposition from the industry. A spokesman for software giant Microsoft told AFP that, while the company believes "the availability of appropriate parental control tools is an important societal consideration for industry and governments around the world ... at the same time, Microsoft is committed to helping advance the free flow of information and encouraging transparency, deliberation and restraint with respect to Internet governance."
Some observers wondered whether money, and not morality, might be motivating the government, which for years has tried to support the growth of China's indigenous software industry. A prominent blogger who calls himself Imagethief wrote that he "detects the whiff of a sweetheart deal. Certainly the company that produced the software, Jinhui Computer System Engineering Company, will cash a nice check from the government, which will apparently underwrite the inclusion of the program." Jinhui Computer System Engineering, a private company based in Henan Province, currently offers the Green Dam Youth Escort software to the public as a free download. The government paid the company $6.1 million for one year's usage rights, but it's unclear if PC makers will be required to pay for copies. (See the 25 best blogs of 2009.)
It's also possible that administrative overzealousness might be a factor, given similar past decisions by MIIT. Ma of IDC says the episode is an "eerie reminder" of the move in late 2003 by the government to require manufacturers of wireless networking products to adopt a Chinese standard called WAPI for encryption of wi-fi wireless communications, even though there was a widely adopted international standard. In that case, howls of protest from manufacturers, not to mention intervention by then Secretary of State Colin Powell, forced Beijing to back down.
Rebecca Mackinnon, an assistant professor of journalism at Hong Kong University who specializes in Internet issues, agreed that China may be repeating past mistakes: "China has a long history of edicts targeted at the tech, telecoms, and media sectors going unenforced, quietly retracted, or morphed in practice into something very different," she wrote on her blog, citing unsuccessful attempts to ban encryption software, force online video websites to be government-owned, and oblige bloggers to register with authorities using their national ID cards. "As the week progresses I'm putting more of my money on the likelihood that the Green Dam filtering software edict will not get implemented, or efforts at enforcement will fade quickly."