For the last decade, China has been fighting – and largely losing – a running battle against the internet, and the free access to information it brings. The government, so used to managing and monitoring the flow of news and disemmination of information within its borders, has at times appeared impotent in the face of a universal technology that has no respect for time zones or geography.
Web users in China are used to intermittent interruptions to services – access to websites such as YouTube and Google is frequently disrupted, while internet access to many foreign news websites, such as the BBC, is often prohibited. The government uses a sophisticated filtering system, dubbed the Great Firewall of China, to “sniff out” web searches for censored material, such as pornography, or politically sensitive terms, such as the outlawed religious group Falun Gong. When the firewall identifies these banned searches, access to the relevant sites is halted on the servers.
However, the Green Dam software that China wants to install on every computer would have moved internet censorship from the servers in to people’s homes; it would have given the government the ability to control internet access at the level of an individual’s computer, stopping at source any searches or web use that it deemed inappropriate.
Unsurprisingly, the Green Dam project lead to an outcry from Chinese internet users and from computer manufacturers, who baulked at the prospect of having to ensure every PC they sold in China was pre-installed with the new filtering software.
The government’s climb-down, just four hours before the Green Dam edict was due to come in to effect, leaves officials with red faces. It remains unclear whether the change of plans was in response to online protests from citizens, complaints from manufacturers, or simply a realisation that, at an administrative level, the sheer size of the undertaking was too great, and could not be achieved in the proposed time frame.
Even if Green Dam does get the go ahead in future, it will simply be applying a sticking plaster to a wider problem. Although there can be little doubt that ordinary computer users will have their browsing experience fundamentally disrupted by the technology, those internet users who are particularly web savvy or technically literate will find a way to circumvent the software. The cat-and-mouse game between the Chinese government and its citizens for control of the web will continue.