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Deconstructing Green Dam

Last week, China’s Minister of Industry and Information Technology announced that pre-installation of the Green Dam/Youth Escort filtering software on computers sold in China would no longer be mandatory. Officials had previously only delayed implementation of the program. However, the software will still be installed in schools, Internet cafes, and other public venues. And, of course, Chinese authorities still maintain extensive filtering mechanisms and other strategies to block access to information online.

Green Dam is only the latest skirmish in the ongoing struggle over control of information in an increasingly networked China. We can make several observations and draw several lessons here to inform the efforts of stakeholders and advocates working to expand the space for expression online. First, this incident highlights China’s increasing adoption of child safety rhetoric as a pretext (at least in part) for politically motivated censorship. Second, Green Dam draws attention to the growing market for third-party filtering software among governments in countries looking to implement pervasive systems of censorship. A variety of types of transactions with such governments raise dicey ethical issues for ICT companies. Companies must grapple with these issues in an affirmative way or risk complicity with human rights violations.

The Green Damn incident also demonstrates that official directives or laws may be more flexible or susceptible to influence than government rhetoric may indicate. Experts on China law and technology policy have underscored this point: Rebecca MacKinnon points to a history of edicts that go unenforced or are quietly retracted. Dan Harris explains that the government sometimes puts forward a law to test public reaction, and scraps the law if reaction is negative. Finally, the Green Dam incident presents a clear precedent for ICT companies operating and selling a variety of products and services in Internet-restricting countries: when governments pass laws that enlist companies in acts of government censorship and surveillance, collaboration between stakeholders with common goals and concerted push back can make a difference in how such laws are actually implemented.

In order to act responsibly, company responses must go beyond simply citing compliance with local law – and a range of options exist between the two extremes of unquestioning compliance and not doing business in a country at all. The Global Network Initiative offers one platform for managing these human rights risks: companies in the GNI get help in developing strategies and options when faced with ill-conceived or ill-intended local law, benefiting greatly from the expertise of leading human rights groups, technology experts, and similarly situated companies. These issues are only becoming more complex and challenging. What will ICT companies do the next time a repressive government comes knocking on their door with the next Green Dam?