China: Web surf at your own risk

Hardware makers in China now have an uncomfortable choice: Ship Web filtering software with every PC, or stop selling PCs. You want to block one site from list A or two sites from list B?

Don't look now, but China is messing with the Interwebs again.

As first reported by the Wall Street Journal, PC makers wishing to sell their hardware on that side of the great firewall after July 1 will be required to install a program called "Green Dam-Youth Escort" that keeps the machine from accessing illicit sites.

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Naturally, the Chinese officials say the program is there strictly to protect China's youth from the scourge of Internet porn. (Stop me if you've heard that one before.) Users wishing to log onto the Net must first access a government controlled database of blocked sites, which will route them around any content Beijing deems too naughty. China already blocks scads of sites, but savvy users have been able to circumvent the great firewall using things like proxy servers. Green Dam blunts that workaround. Per the Journal:

The government notice about the requirement says it is aimed at "constructing a green, healthy, and harmonious internet environment, and preventing harmful information on the internet from influencing and poisoning young people".

What exactly constitutes poison? Any site the Chinese government doesn't care for. Last week that included Twitter, Bing, Flickr, and Hotmail, which apparently got blocked so people couldn't use them to share their disgust memories of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre incident. (Those sites got unblocked this week.) And, of course, any site having to do with Guns N' Roses.

Worse, according to the Journal, the software can be used to collect user data, though it doesn't say what kind of data. Surfing histories, most likely. Wanna to bet that people who try to visit sites Chinese cybercops have covered in yellow tape end up on a list somewhere -- or worse?

PC makers now have the lovely choice of shipping/installing the Web filter with each new machine they sell or finding another market with 1.3 billion people willing to buy their stuff. Not a good position for anyone to be in.

The good news, such as it is: The software can apparently be shipped on disc instead of preinstalled, and parents will have the option of disabling or un-installing it. If that's truly the case, that's a good thing. Of course, we've seen how things that start out as "voluntary" soon become mandatory. Check back in three years after most people have replaced their machines and we'll see if using Green Dam becomes a requirement for Net access.

Good thing we live over here in a free country where that sort of thing can never happen, right? Guess again. Similar software is installed at schools, libraries, and corporations all over the United States, as well as built into every Vista machine. The biggest difference is who's determining what goes on the forbidden list, and what criteria they're using.

What's wrong with censoring porn and other parts of the Net's nasty dark underbelly? Because nastiness is in the eye of the folks controlling that database. There are plenty of folks more than happy to start divvying up the Net into Good and Evil and start stomping out the Evil, and their definition of Evil might be different than yours and mine.

I don't subscribe to the theory that the current administration wants to control our car companies, our minds, and everything else, by the way. I think they already have more on their plates than they can eat without several trips to the vomitorium. But I can easily see other folks in that position wanting to take on the job of "cleaning up" the Net, if not now then soon. Those are the people I'd be worried about.

Should Net censorship be tolerated? If so, who should control it? Post your thoughts or e-mail me direct: cringe@infoworld.com.

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