China Is Not A Kindergarten

Gady Epstein reports in Forbes, from Beijing:

If this was some official’s clever idea to show Chinese Internet users who is really in charge, it certainly hasn’t worked out as planned.

The story of the week in Chinese Internetland was the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology’s directive that computer makers must include a content-filtering program on all computers sold in China from July 1. Government officials say the policy is intended to protect children from pornography, which doesn’t explain why the software also bans sensitive political terms (and can be updated remotely to do much more). By trying to force such intrusive filtering on all Chinese consumers, authorities have angered Internet users who do not want to be treated like children.

“China is a kindergarten, that is the basic logic behind this,” says Michael Anti, a Chinese journalist and popular microblogger. “It’s stupid. It’s so stupid.”

This move was so ham-fisted that it provoked exactly what the government doesn’t want: a raging public controversy about government censorship. The anointed filtering software, Green Dam Youth Escort, has been ridiculed for sloppy programming, possible intellectual property violations and gaping security holes that would allow any Web site visited to take control of the computer.

“It’s certainly turning into the laughingstock of China,” says Rebecca MacKinnon, an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre whose blog summed up many of this week’s critiques.

The emergence of an embarrassing government misstep is not in itself an earth-shaking development. The Chinese people are used to the government issuing edicts and then not enforcing them. Just as onerous and ill-conceived regulations are a part of life, so too is ignoring them. The same could be said of the filtering software itself–there is little doubt that any Chinese netizen who wants to access porn will succeed in their determination to do so, and the same goes for the much smaller minority who want to explore politically subversive topics.

Please also read the most authoritative analysis of Green Dam by Open Net Initiative. The Open Net Initiative is a collaborative partnership involving institutes at the University of Toronto, Harvard, Cambridge and Oxford.

Executive Summary

A recent directive by the Chinese government requires the installation of a specific filtering software product, Green Dam, with the publicly stated intent of protecting children from harmful Internet content. The proposed implementation of software as reviewed in this report would in fact have an influence that extends beyond helping parents protect their children from age inappropriate material; the filtering options include blocking of political and religious content normally associated with the Great Firewall of China, China’s sophisticated national-level filtering system. 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.

As a policy decision, mandating the installation of a specific software product is both unprecedented and poorly conceived. In this specific instance, the mistake is compounded by requiring the use of a substandard software product that interferes with the performance of personal computers in an unpredictable way, killing browsers and applications without warning while opening up users to numerous serious security vulnerabilities. The level of parental control over the software is poor such that this software does not well serve parents that wish to the limit exposure of their children to Internet content.

The mandate requiring the installation of a specific product serves no useful purpose apart from extending the reach of government authorities. Given the resulting poor quality of the product, the large negative security and stability effects on the Chinese computing infrastructure and the intense backlash against the product mandate, the mandate may result in less government control.

Key Findings

Green Dam exerts unprecedented control over users’ computing experience
The version of the Green Dam software that we tested, when operating under its default settings, is far more intrusive than any other content control software we have reviewed. Not only does it block access to a wide range of web sites based on keywords and image processing, including porn, gaming, gay content, religious sites and political themes, it actively monitors individual computer behavior, such that a wide range of programs including word processing and email can be suddenly terminated if content algorithm detects inappropriate speech. The program installs components deep into the kernel of the computer operating system in order to enable this application layer monitoring. The operation of the software is highly unpredictable and disrupts computer activity far beyond the blocking of websites.

The functionality of Green Dam goes far beyond that which is needed to protect children online and subjects users to security risks
The deeply intrusive nature of the software opens up several possibilities for use other than filtering material harmful to minors. With minor changes introduced through the auto-update feature, the architecture could be used for monitoring personal communications and Internet browsing behavior. Log files are currently recorded locally on the machine, including events and keywords that trigger filtering. The auto-update feature can used to change the scope and targeting of filtering without any notification to users.

The effective level of parental control over the software is poor
Technically, the software may be turned off or uninstalled and the filtering settings adjusted. In practice, a large number of users accept pre-installed software and never change default settings. Moreover, a combination of poor implementation and opaque design makes it very difficult for even expert users to understand what the system is doing by default, let alone understand the impact and scope of auto-updates and configuration changes. These factors severely erode any arguments over parental choice. Moreover, the bundling of filtering to cover many different targets through poorly designed and implemented interfaces leaves parents with inadequate choices in customizing filtering setting to match their personal family preferences.

Mandating the use of a specific software product is a questionable policy decision
Introducing a product standard by mandating the use of a particular software product made by a specific company for individual use at a national level is unprecedented. We are not aware of any comparable requirement by any country in any context. A product mandate provides a strong measure of central control at the cost of consumer choice, security, and product quality, with implications for personal computer performance. This is a remarkably poor choice for computer users in any country. The effects of this product mandate are magnified by the fact that the product and company in question are reported to have little or no experience in the development, testing, deployment, or support of a very widely used software product.


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