Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Green Dam: bad idea

Green Dam: bad idea

On the eve of July 1, China’s Ministry of Industry and Informatization (MIIT) announced an indefinite delay of the Green Dam initiative, which would have required all PCs sold in China to be pre-installed with Internet filtering software. While it may be premature for information freedom advocates to declare victory, it’s likely that the authorities averted an embarrassing situation had it decided to press ahead with the order.

The Green Dam software is not typical Internet content-filtering software—it’s a piece of personal behavior monitoring and reporting software. Even when a user isn’t connected to the Internet, if banned Chinese keywords like “Falungong” or “June 4th Massacre” are typed into a Green Dam-active PC, the applications Word and Notepad will automatically shut down. As log of these activities—as well as periodic screenshots—will be uploaded to certain servers in China without notifying users, Green Dam also qualifies as spyware.

In English, at least at the early versions of the software, words such as sex or the “f-word” are exempt from the blacklist. That’s why some are calling Green Dam “English educational software,” giving Chinese Internet users an extra reason to learn a foreign language. Even as filtering software, Green Dam fails.

Shoddy construction

Green Dam was poorly thought-out and shoddily constructed. US-based software company Solid Oak Software has claimed that Green Dam copied code from its CYBERsitter product. MIIT—in its statement issued just before the delay order—said if there were any intellectual property infringements, they would be dealt with according to law against the Chinese software companies involved, apparently trying to wash its own hands clean.

Most western PC-makers have stayed silent, leaving the talking to government bodies like the US Department of Commerce, and trade associations—22 of which issued a statement before July 1. Knowing that if they went along with the MIIT order they would be under political pressure at home and possible legal liabilities, this was likely their best move.

However, a number of Asian PC-manufacturers chose to go along with the MIIT order. Companies such as China’s Lenovo and Haier, Taiwan’s Acer and Asus, and Japan’s Sony had reportedly installed Green Dam on their systems before July 1, and some have been continuing to ship PCs with Green Dam installed after the government’s policy reversal. As a result, Solid Oak has recently sent cease-and-desist orders to PC-makers including Lenovo, Acer, Sony, and Toshiba.

Culture clash

Why did Western and Asian computer companies behave so differently when faced with Chinese government orders? Western companies would face more legal and political liabilities at home than their Asian counterparts, and there is also a stronger civil society and voice of advocacy
in the West.

That was the lesson Yahoo learned the hard way, when Chinese journalist Shi Tao was jailed in 2005 by a Chinese court. Evidence from Yahoo’s China-based email service was turned over to the authorities “without asking what it was for.” Company chairman Jerry Yang had to face US congressional hearings on the matter, and publicly apologized to Shi Tao’s family on Capitol Hill.

As a result, a number of global IT companies established the Global Network Initiative (GNI) in late 2008, as a multi-stakeholder organization of companies, human rights groups, academics and investors, launching a set of principles, implementation guidelines and a governance framework to help the ICT sector promote and protect the right to privacy and freedom of expression, addressing situations where companies may be pressured by governments to give away users’ personal information, censor content, or monitor communications via surveillance systems.

The way forward

The Green Dam fiasco has shown that Asian IT companies could benefit from upholding users’ rights in today’s globalized and Net-connected business world. Just as Western companies are learning to be more mature in dealing with government demands to strengthen control—which inevitably will become more frequent, especially in a country like China—Asian companies must adopt a more progressive attitude on this aspect of social responsibility.

In an interview by “Caijing” magazine in China, Jorg Wuttke, chairman of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, said that it was the Internet itself which finally altered the decision of the Chinese authorities on Green Dam: “The dynamic and open discussion on the Internet was probably the real push that caused the government to change its stance.” Asian IT companies should begin to understand that blindly following anything government directives is perhaps not best practice. Listening to the users—who happen to be their paying customers—is just plain old good business sense. And sometimes, common sense, rather than hastily planned and fundamentally flawed mandates like Green Dam, pays off.

Charles Mok is chairman of the Internet Society of Hong Kong

Published on Computerworld Hong Kong, Jul/Aug 2009 issue

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