IN ORDER TO GAIN access to the Chinese market, US companies have co-operated in one way or another with government requests to restrict freedom of access to the Internet. Why are those companies pushing back now because of China’s new Green Dam web filter?
China has the world’s largest population of Internet users, with more than 298 million folks online. Like some other nations, Chinese authorities try to monitor or block access to material they feel is subversive. In order to gain access to the Chinese market, US companies such as Yahoo, Microsoft and Google have cooperated in one way or another with government requests to restrict freedom of web access or privacy while using their products.
This spirit of cooperation ended in May, when the Chinese government announced a mandate to ship all new PCs with Jinhui’s Green Dam Youth Escort. Representatives from US-based technology groups flocked to Beijing in an attempt to block Green Dam.
“We welcome the delay in implementation of the Green Dam mandate, and we look forward to working closely with the US government to find market-based solutions that enable consumer choice and protect children on the internet,” said a statement by John Neuffer, vice-president for global policy at the Information Technology Industry Council, which represents companies including Apple, Dell, and HP. Other groups followed suit; “We’re pleased with the delay on this issue that is part of a broader, historic struggle between openness and repression—not just in China but Iran and North Korea,” said Computer & Communications Industry Association president Ed Black in a statement. “
If you believe the press releases it sounds like US Big Business is standing up for human rights everywhere.
That’s great, but The Beijing News (June 10, 2009) reports that there is no requirement to actually install the program… it only needs to be available for installation on the drive, or included on CD. Further, many PCs in the United States come with similar parental control software pre-loaded and no one seems to mind. Chinese parents want this capacity too… in the Chinese language.
Chinese state media reports that parents are eager to install the Chinese language-based filter. In an article in Xinhua, Zhao Huiqui, the president of Jinhui Computer System Engineering Co. Ltd. stated that; “There has been a geometric growth in Green Dam users this month,” she said, pointing out that they had seen an average of more than 100,000 users registering the software per day.
So what is the big deal? Scott Wolchok, Randy Yao, and J. Alex Halderman of the University of Michigan report that there are issues with the application security due to “unsafe and outdated programming practices”. Of course, there are no US produced applications that ship containing “outdated programming practices”, Microsoft doesn’t like competition.
The University of Michigan researchers also reported that some of the “blacklists” were copied directly from CyberSitter, a product made by US-based Solid Oak Software. In addition, code libraries and a configuration file derived from the open source OpenCV was found without the required license information. To be fair, Green Dam developers promptly attempted to fix these issues. The current release (3.174) does not include CyberSitter content and some of the security holes have been partially plugged. Green Dam even credits OpenCV for its use of the open source code libraries.
The reported problems seem serious, but are not unusual. Many computers ship with preinstalled software that has similar issues. The last computer this reporter purchased and put online required 47 security updates to the Microsoft OS alone.
Our question is; “Did the Chinese government consider the computer manufacturers’ pre-loaded software agreements?” You know… you eagerly fire up your brand new computer, only to find it clogged with a gazillion evaluation programs; all of which are ‘phoning home’, updating themselves and sending personal information about your configuration to anyone who cares to sniff the traffic? Computer manufacturers make a considerable amount of money from these pre-installation arrangements, and they probably didn’t want to ship software without getting their payoff.
China’s human rights record certainly has issues, but this is just an exercise in rhetoric and the bottom line. S|A