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China's Great Firewall

The Green Dam episode suggests that the West has some influence in preserving Internet freedom
Washington Post
August 17, 2009

LAST THURSDAY, China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology announced its withdrawal of requirements that Green Dam Internet censorship software come pre-installed on all computers. This victory is not unblemished. China is continuing to install the software in computers at Internet cafes and universities. And some manufacturers continue to include it with computers shipped to the country. But the outcome -- although not perfect -- is a success for the Chinese people and the cause of Internet freedom.

The prevailing argument from Western companies that have been dealing with China has often been that of inevitability -- if we don't accept Chinese demands, someone else will. But the successful pushback against Green Dam by computer manufacturers and the State Department suggests another possibility: If everyone remains firm, we can achieve results.

The principle that Green Dam embodied -- centering censorship at the level not of the network but of the individual computer -- was pernicious. But there was a lot wrong with the software itself. It was poorly constructed, with security vulnerabilities that could have enabled hackers to turn the entire Chinese computer network into a malicious botnet. Even as censorship software, it had problems: It worked only in Internet Explorer, not in Firefox or Google's Chrome. The decision to cease requiring Green Dam may have turned on pragmatic concerns as well as industry objections.

Green Dam, with all its inefficiencies, was just another brick in China's Great Firewall. In the face of its people's efforts to elude censors and use the Internet to access information freely, China has an incredibly complex system of censorship that operates on multiple levels, from programs that detect proscribed keywords and delete them to human beings whose job is to trawl the Internet for potentially seditious postings and delete them. Although there are cracks in the wall, China still effectively controls much of the flow of information. Even without Green Dam, it shut down YouTube and Twitter in preparation for the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square.

That's why commitment to anti-censorship technologies remains essential. The key to freedom for the Chinese people is free access to information. Even if some Western companies continue to kowtow to Chinese demands -- for instance, in the realm of search censorship -- the availability of technology to evade China's firewall will make such limitations less meaningful. But until the Great Firewall falls, the lesson of Green Dam is clear: If industries stand together to oppose unreasonable demands, China is willing to listen. Doing business with China does not have to mean accepting its terms when they are unjust.

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