Behind the Green Dam
Thursday, July 9, 2009
The controversies over Internet filtering are only just beginning.
On June 30, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) suspended indefinitely a requirement scheduled for July 1 that the 40 million personal computers sold in China each year be equipped or accompanied with Green Dam software capable of filtering out porn and (potentially) other undesirable material.
The crisis generated by the proposal was short but sharp, and the collective tech world sighed with relief at the stay. The consensus reaction is that the Chinese acted hastily, realized their error, and responded to the difficulties pointed out by the companies, the U.S. government, and Chinese Internet users. The tech world is both self-congratulatory at its own ability to unite and stand up to the Dragon and happy that the Chinese proved themselves reasonable.
This story seems roughly right. The MIIT directive first circulated on May 19, but it was not released publicly and received no press until the news broke in the Wall Street Journal on June 8, and only after that was it formally issued. To a veteran bureaucrat, the document reads like a routine agency pronouncement thought to promote an established goal of the government rather than a major initiative:
China is unlikely to give up its existing organs of centralized monitoring and censoring, and failure to find reasonable alternatives could cause an increase in the level of blunt-instrument intrusion.
In order to create a green, healthy, and harmonious internet environment, to avoid exposing youth to the harmful effects of bad information, the Ministry of Information Industry, The Central Spiritual Civilization Office, and The Commerce Ministry” [are purchasing] rights to “Green Dam Flower Season Escort” (Henceforth “Green Dam”) . . . for one year along with associated services, which will be freely provided to the public.
The directive went on to specify that Green Dam must be either loaded onto new PCs or sent along on a CD, and required reporting of the usage numbers, but it had no penalties for noncompliance, and it looks doubtful that MIIT thought it was doing anything terribly controversial.
Such optimism was a miscalculation, because the reaction from both the tech world and China’s Internet community was strong, negative, and broad. People protested that the software would not work properly, would be used for political purposes, might collect personal information, and so on. Some bloggers asserted that many of the terms on the banned list were political. The editor of business magazine Caijing summed it up in “Green Dam and Leaky Dam”:
The directive elicited a few nods of approval for its avowed purpose of protecting youth from “pornographic and vulgar” content. However, the overwhelming response was negative. Some professionals say the “Green Dam” technology is crap and it makes PCs vulnerable to hijacking by hackers and spreading greater risks. Some commentators say the scope of filtering by “Green Dam” is so wide and the contents so vague, it comes across as excessive control; some analysts opine that the “Green Dam” software without going through open bidding may have violated “Government Purchase Law” and suspect that it enjoying favoritism, and so on. Business organizations summed up the problems as relating to “security, privacy, system stability, free dissemination of information, and the right to choose by users.”
On June 24, with the deadline imminent, the U.S. Department of Commerce sent a protest letter to the relevant Chinese ministries, and two days later 22 mainly U.S. trade associations co-signed a letter to China Premier Wen Jiabao (neither letter has been made public). The 22 were:
Anyone who has ever worked with trade associations knows how difficult it is to get even a single association to move with speed to say “good morning,” so getting 22 of them to sign a letter to a high government official within a span of about a week is both genuinely impressive and a sign of serious panic.
Getting 22 trade associations to sign a letter to a high government official within a span of about a week is both genuinely impressive and a sign of serious panic.
While the bureaucratic snafu explanation is most probable, an alternative explanation should be considered. In this narrative, the Chinese government knew that its demand was impossible and never intended to enforce it, but it takes seriously the substantive issues of content on the Internet. The Chinese government has been having trouble getting the tech world to do more than merely express concern, keep talking about what a difficult problem content is, and drafting the white papers for the next round of conferences that reiterate what was said at the last round.
We in the United States underestimate the degree to which the Chinese regard certain Internet content, particularly pornography, as having serious spiritual dimensions, and we are slow to accept that “we’re working on it” cannot be used forever.
One of the work units listed as involved in the project was The Central Spiritual Civilization Office. This entity is not listed in the table of organization of the Chinese government, and Bing and Google searches produce nothing except recent stories related to Green Dam. The city of Beijing has such a unit, though, and the Green Dam announcement treated it (whatever it is) as a peer of both MIIT itself and the Ministry of Commerce. Again, the instincts of a veteran bureaucrat are piqued by such a coupling, because it signals clout.
Reaction from both the tech world and China’s Internet community was strong, negative, and broad. People protested that the software would not work properly, would be used for political purposes, might collect personal information, and so on.
So, in this theory, China may have adopted the classic strategy of using a two-by-four to get the mule’s attention, perhaps as part of a deal between the commercial-minded ministries and the spiritual office. Thus it sent the message that while it is not completely unreasonable neither does it have infinite patience. Now that the tech world has registered its opposition to Internet censorship, China wants progress on achieving exactly that goal, but it remains open to discussion on exactly what this means and how it can be done.
Anyone not raised in the U.S. tradition of First Amendment absolutism will find this a hard problem. If one loads Bing or Google, clicks “Images,” turn off the filters, and types in “sex,” one need not be a prude to be bit shaken. The historic compromise on erotica (to be generous to what appears after such a search) is that it should not be banned but that time/place/manner restrictions are not just acceptable but good. The Internet shatters this compromise, and how to find a viable new one is not easy.
The tech companies chant “parental control software,” but, while this is obviously good and necessary, it is hardly sufficient to meet the problem, and China may be telling them that their act is getting old.
In any case, and whether or not the current crisis was orchestrated by the Chinese, the controversies will become more intense. Of course, the porn problem is only the beginning. Most cultures are less absolutist than the United States for other kinds of expression as well, and some of them may also decide that some form of Internet filtering is also necessary to preserve any semblance of a viable news business. China, in particular, is unlikely to give up its existing organs of centralized monitoring and censoring, and failure to find reasonable alternatives will likely trigger an increase in the level of blunt-instrument intrusion.
The tech trade associations better keep their word processors warmed up, because they will get the chance to write a lot of letters.
FURTHER READING: In other articles for The American, DeLong wrote “Preparing the Obituary” on the decline of the newspaper industry, “Avoiding a Tech Train Wreck” on the intersection of technology and politics, and “The Coming of the Fourth American Republic” on how the Special Interest State that has shaped American life for 70 years is dying.
Image by Dianna Ingram/Bergman Group.