Internet & Tech, Talking Point

Assessing the Dam Age

Why the controversial internet filter Green Dam has been put on ice

Assessing the Dam Age

Freedom of Search: China's 300 million internet users don't like the idea of web filters

Imagine a Cheney-Rumsfeld presidential ticket and then try and conceive of something even less appetising.

Well, look no further than China’s Green Dam software – so unpopular it even earned its developer death threats.

What is it and why all the furore?

The Chinese government had announced that by July 1, all new PCs sold in China were to come installed with the Green Dam internet filter. This is a piece of software designed to block access to ‘unsuitable’ websites and content.

Green Dam caused storms of protest – not just in China, but from foreign governments as well as PC makers. But to the delight of the internet community, a counter-announcement was made this week: as the deadline neared, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) shelved the measure.

So this was a government climbdown?

Yes, a “rare one” too according to many commentators.

Whatever the intention, the introduction of Green Dam was not very well managed. The objectives were not clearly communicated, the timeline for compliance was too compressed and there were a number of unresolved questions – not least did it actually work (bizarrely it would block web pages featuring images of pigs).

All this in a period in which the authorities were also taking criticism for roughing up Google. Last month saw state media attacks on the search engine’s links to pornographic content, as well as reports last week of intermittent disruption to its search platform.

The press campaign may have been part of an effort to refocus attention on Green Dam’s anti-pornographic intent.

But it looked clumsy. Similar terms typed into (the dominant search engine in China) dredged up a range of similar content.

The other disconnect was cultural. Generally, the Western media has looked at the Green Dam episode through a political lens rather than an anti-pornographic one. It also tends to assume that efforts to whip the internet into line are doomed in the long run. Or in Bill Clinton’s phrase, that they are as pointless as nailing Jello to a wall.

Beijing would have been more bothered by the response from inside China, which has also been vigorous. But the discussion at home has been shaped more by issues relating to freedom of choice.

Many Chinese netizens are perfectly okay with the idea of a filter that can eliminate pornography. But they think it is for individuals to choose whether or not to install it.

But the government does make efforts at controlling the Web?

Yes. The authorities have been more than prepared to have a go at hammering at least some of that internet jello into the wallpaper.

Take the technical controls built into the ‘Great Firewall of China’, a variety of filters in which routers can identify offending keywords and disrupt the internet connection, often sending a warning message to the user and logging the event.

Something similar is mandated for topics, keywords and URLs in search engines, which is why a search on Google’s .cn service can return different responses to a search on its .com one.

Then there are the eyeballs that monitor content. The government employs its own teams (estimates are in the tens of thousands) to search out and remove content deemed as undesirable.

Companies involved in hosting and presenting content online have a legal responsibility to do something similar.

This is one reason why Beijing has seemed keen to promote Chinese ISPs, search engines, news portals and video-sharing sites at the expense of foreign rivals. Analysts dub it a ‘Chinese internet’ or a ‘walled garden’ of filtered, self-policed, local language content.

And these efforts have been successful?

They make the internet less open than in most western countries. But the Big Brother imagery can also lose some of its more menacing lustre, as studies have reported inconsistent implementation of government policy, with significant variations in how search engines filter content or in how it is screened by censors.

The Green Dam furore also raises other questions. Presumably, if online filters were highly effective there would be less need for software to be inserted into individual PCs.

The software itself is said to have cost the government around $5 million – a piddling amount of money if it really is to be the centrepiece of an authoritarian masterplan.

So China’s internet is a lively place after all?

There is no denying that the restrictions are greater in China than in a number of other countries. But to concentrate purely on the political dimension ignores how fast the internet is growing across Chinese society. There are already 300 million Chinese online, more than in the US. This is still only a fifth of the population, so the scope for further growth is huge. HSBC expects it to double in the next five years alone. This is a trend that the government has actively promoted, by building a domestic broadband network, and encouraging wider computer and internet literacy. Then there are the online activities of Chinese users. Many do turn to online news on what is happening at home and further afield. But for every critic of government policy, there are likely many more fenqing (younger internet users, often with a strongly pro-Chinese viewpoint – see WiC9) online. The average netizen in China is also far, far more likely to be playing World of Warcraft than pursuing surreptitious research into parliamentary democracy.

And what will the government do in future?

Tricky question. The government knows there are tremendous economic benefits to promoting the internet, even as it worries that it may lose some of its traditional control.

The dividing line can be a thin one. It knows that it is not always given the full picture by its local officials, for instance, and thinks that some online discussion of local cases of corruption may mitigate some of the worst local excesses.

On the other hand, it is concerned when this spills over into a mobilisation of widespread opinion. Some legal experts cite the recent case of the waitress Deng Yujiao (see WiC18). Her (unexpected) acquittal was seen as a victory for internet-enabled public opinion. They say the central government was fearful that her case had become a powderkeg and knew her jailing might provoke social unrest.

Plus there is a genuine moral streak: the authorities do worry about the corrosive effects of online pornography. “Cyberspace is like London during the industrial revolution. It is constantly polluted,” says Xiao Lijun, a psychiatrist at the PLA General Hospital in Beijing. His view seems fairly representative of how some people in government see the issue. For now, the government seems to be groping its way towards a new policy agenda and Green Dam may have been one of those occasions in which a potential law is floated, to gauge a reaction before a decision is taken on how to proceed.

In this case, policymakers underestimated the intensity of the response. The editor of Caijing magazine wrote that the bureaucrats found themselves in the unwelcome position of “riding a tiger that they were unable to get off”.

Some now expect Green Dam to be quietly dropped. Others reckon a modified version will make a return at a later date, when things settle down.

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