China’s announcement Monday that all computers sold in that country must include state-approved software to filter out pornography has drawn a good deal of commentary this week, none of it good. PC makers, civil liberties groups, Chinese media and average Web users are lashing out against the "Green Dam" software, citing everything from free-speech issues to technical problems that affect standard operating systems.
China claims the software, which employs text filters and image recognition technology to root out prohibited material, will make China’s youth safe from "vulgar" content on the Web. Green Dam’s creator claims the program is designed strictly for filtering pornographic words and images and can’t be used as spyware. But many see a thinly veiled attempt by the government to control what content citizens can and cannot access, particularly in regard to politically sensitive material. China has long blocked access to content concerning Tibetan independence, human rights and other issues that don’t mesh with ruling party philosophy.
But while many are outraged at the state’s Big Brother attitude toward Web browsing, still others are simply frustrated at the program’s flaws. One schoolteacher wrote on a blog after installing the software: "When we need to look up some course-related material, there is always some provocative advertisements on the pages so we can’t access them anymore. Why doesn’t the state just ban those advertisements directly?"
The Beijing News noted that in tests of the software, which has already been installed in many schools in China, indiscriminate filtering caused problems with online learning tools. For instance, an innocuous math question that included the word "balls" was filtered out. Another teacher, writing on Green Dam’s Web site, said that she couldn’t view pictures of pigs, but if she searched for images of nude African women, the photos were not blocked.
PC makers, who sold around 40 million computers in China last year, have not officially responded to the issue, likely in hopes that trade groups can cajole the government into changing its mind. Palo Alto-based Hewlett Packard said only that it is monitoring developments, while Round Rock, Texas-based Dell has declined to go on the record. But trade groups and industry execs alike agree that making this software standard by July 1 borders on impossible, technical issues notwithstanding.
Industry officials did confirm to the New York Times that a dialogue has begun between trade groups and Chinese officials. As for the Chinese citizens most affected by the Green Dam mandate? Some netizens seem to feel there’s little to fear. As one blogger noted, "Mainland China has netizens with superb skills and techniques. After the company earns their share, there will be many cracked versions" of the software.