China Ink, Internet & Tech

Bad news for Hello Kitty fans

An internet filter stirs controversy

Bad news for Hello Kitty fans

This is about privacy and not just pornography…

Few newspapers have a good word to say about the filter, with most highlighting a poll in which 80% of respondents regard it as a violation of privacy.

China Daily thinks that it shows that some government officials still expect to decide for people without their consent. Users themselves should decide whether to install Green Dam. The China Youth Daily urges that the good intentions of government not impede on freedom of choice. The Economic Observer agrees, calling for a service-oriented government rather than a controlling one.

It’s also about piracy, says the Wall Street Journal, which reports on the claims of Solid Oak Software, a Californian company, which says Green Dam has stolen code from a product of its own. The firm is considering a legal challenge.

“China’s Computer Folly” is the headline in the New York Times, which regards the measure as “selfdestructive and foolish”. Plus bound to fail; like most of the international press, the newspaper thinks that China’s leadership doesn’t understand that the internet can’t be corralled into obedient behaviour.

How does the filter work?

Not very well, says Hu Yong, a journalism professor at Peking University, writing in the Beijing News. Images seem to be blocked on the basis of background colour as much as actual content. And while Hu welcomes attempts to restrict access to pornographic or violent material, he wonders who decides if the content is offensive in the first place.

But officials are saying that the software is not compulsory after all, the state media later reveals. Installation is mandatory, but users have the “final say” on whether to switch Green Dam on. In fact the bureaucrats are saying it has all been a bit of “a misunderstanding”.

The Western press cites the experiences of those who have already downloaded the filter. According to one user, the software censors images primarily on the basis of skin expanse and colour. So a picture of a pig was blocked but pornographic scenes featuring dark-skinned people were not. Green Dam also doesn’t like images with too much yellow, so pictures of Hello Kitty and Garfield also failed to make it past the censor. A technical review from the University of Michigan is also widely quoted. According to the geeks, design flaws in the software could allow malicious sites to steal private data, send spam or even enlist the computer in a botnet [a group of software robots that run without a computer owner’s knowledge].

What about political content?

That’s not in the project’s scope, government spokesmen have told various domestic reporters. But the People’s Daily notes that Green Dam did jam access to some “sensitive overseas websites”. Internet users were met with pop-up messages declaring “Unhealthy information! Needs filtering!” before their browsers closed automatically.

The filter does have a political edge, notes Bloomberg, as it blocks access to some websites critical of the government. Applications and internetchat services were also closed when some keywords were entered.

Western PC makers are in something of a bind, says Reuters, as they may suffer a backlash at home if they agree to install the filter. Asian manufacturers are unlikely to face similar problems.

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