Beginning July 1, PC makers pushing their products in China will face an ethical challenge. That's when the Chinese government plans to require all PCs sold in the country to ship with software that blocks access to particular corners of the Web. Although the officials claim that pornography is the primary target of the censoring software, known officially as Green Dam-Youth Escort, the move could introduce unprecedented government control over what China's 250 million Web users can see.
This new move is in addition to China's already extensive content-filtering systems in place that block content ranging from pornography to political and religious sites deemed incongruent with the ruling party's philosophy. Currently, the Great Firewall only works at the network level and isn't incredibly difficult for users to circumvent. Green Dam would link each PC to a regularly updated database of banned content, blocking those pages from the computer's browser.
The program can be either pre-installed on new PCs, or packaged with them on a compact disc, offering users some choice as to whether to install it. But all primary and secondary schools have already been directed to install Green Dam by the end of this month, and more mandates are possible.
The option to install the software may spare PC makers from having to take a hard ethical stand, but the question remains: Does fiduciary duty require companies to comply with government censorship in pursuit of profit, or are they ethically obligated to defy regulations and risk being booted from a major market?
There is some precedent here: After catching flak from civil liberties groups and a threat of boycott for complying with Chinese censorship rules on their search engine, several American search companies—including Google, Yahoo and Microsoft—outlined rules for complying with censorship requests while maintaining a degree of transparency about what they were censoring.
But PC makers won't get off so easy. The search giants ultimately have control over what is left out of their search results. Hardware manufacturers will have no control over what content is blocked after the Green Dam software is installed on their machines, leaving little room to negotiate some kind of face-saving compromise.
Jinhui Computer Systems Engineering Co., the software's creator, compiles and manages the list of blocked sites itself, and while it claims the list only contains pornographic sites, it acknowledges that the software could be used to block other sites, as well as to collect private user data.
For its part, the government claims strict regulations are in place to keep software companies from gathering personal data and that content will be blocked "according to law." The breadth of information included under that law, however, is not exactly clear. A government notice claims the software will create a "harmonious Internet environment" that will protect young people from harmful information and influences.
But ethical issues aside, critics of the software claim it could expose users to other dangers. Having all computers connecting regularly to a single database could leave the entire country vulnerable to hackers and cyber attacks if that database were breached.