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China Backs Off Green Dam filtering mandate

Chinese authorities today delayed implementation of the much-disparaged Green Dam-Youth Escort filtering mandate, just one day before the July 1 implementation deadline. Since the Green Dam directive was made public, we have learned that the filtering software does not work as proposed or publicized, may create serious security vulnerabilities, may contain stolen code, and likely violates China’s WTO obligations. The filter targets far more than sexually explicit material and is capable of shutting down a variety of applications when politically sensitive keywords are triggered. Independent analysis has also revealed that security flaws in the software could make millions of PC users in China vulnerable to a variety of malicious attacks.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the mandate has encountered widespread domestic resistance, including criticism from mainstream Internet users and state-controlled media. Several prominent Chinese bloggers called for a July 1 Internet boycott if the government stood firm on the original implementation deadline, while other online activists have promised far more confrontational countermeasures. For their part, trade groups representing a wide array of technology companies subject to the directive have worked in concert to push back, pointing out the many issues that such a product mandate raises regarding security, privacy, system reliability, the free flow of information, and user choice.

However, some companies have already taken substantial steps to comply, and it is unclear what additional steps such companies have taken to mitigate the potential harm the software could cause to the privacy and security of their customers. This directive has been a big test for the ICT sector. Trade associations are right to be concerned about the precedent their response may set: It is not hard to imagine even more intrusive technology mandates down the line aimed at perfecting the Chinese panopticon—directed not only at computer manufacturers but also mobile phone equipment and service providers. And many other countries that strictly control expression and access to information look to China as the shining example of how such technologies can be used as tools for maintaining greater political and social control.

The current combination of domestic outrage, embarrassing technical flaws, and concerted industry push back may (hopefully) persuade Chinese authorities to quietly scrap Green Dam altogether. However, ICT companies should expect that issues that invoke the corporate responsibility to respect human rights will only get harder, not easier. Many governments will continue to enlist companies in acts of censorship and surveillance; companies must have a thoughtful, systematic, and proactive approach in how they will respond. At stake is not only their customers’ faith and trust in their products, but also the human rights of Internet users all over the world.