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Green Dam is Breached… Now What?

Rebecca MacKinnon

As a number of China hands predicted, the Chinese government has postponed its mandate requiring that all computers sold in China must include the Green Dam -Youth Escort censorware by today.

Yesterday after the news broke I told the Financial Times: "There's been this impression in the internet industry that when the Chinese government makes a demand, they have to roll over and play dead. The lesson here is that's not necessarily the case." I'll put it more strongly here: The Green Dam episode proves yet again that when companies respond to critics by saying things like: "it's beyond our control if we want to do business in China" or "there's nothing we can do or we will get kicked out," that is a huge pile of, well, equine excrement.

What should be abundantly clear from events of the past several weeks is that industry and even ordinary citizens can have a real impact on policy outcomes in China — especially information and technology policy that has a direct impact on large numbers of people nationwide. It's not clear whether a new deadline will be set, the mandate radically revised, or the whole thing quietly scrapped. Which of those three options becomes reality depends very much on the actions over the next few months by industry, Chinese netizens, and various other actors.

Andrew Lih writes:

This should be seen as a case study on how the complexities of China's decision system is much more nuanced than what a "Communist" regime would suggest, and the role of citizen deliberation in a new, upwardly mobile, aspirational, IT-savvy China.

While the outside world sees the PRC government in absolute control, in reality the heavy handed, top down authoritarian system rides on a delicate balance of, bottom up public consent that supports the state's legitimacy.

Sky Canaves at WSJ.com's China Journal has a great post titled Green Dam and the Politics of Consent, in which she points out:

While it's impossible to know what impact Chinese critics of the plan had relative to the vocal protestations of foreign governments, trade organizations and PC makers, the ministry's latest move on Green Dam highlights the consensual nature of government and politics in China, which emphasizes stability and agreement among all parties involved.

Dan Harris sees this as an example of how China really is moving in the right direction:

China is billing it as a delay, but I can virtually guarantee this software will never be heard from again. I say this for two reasons. One, the people did not like it and Beijing does NOT want to go against the people on something like this. Since there is absolutely no reason to believe the people will ever start liking something like this, there is absolutely no reason to believe the software will return. Two, I know movement has been slow, and I know it has been in fits and starts, but if we were to draw a straight line through the rises and falls, freedom is on a fairly inexorable march in China.

William Moss, a.k.a. "Imagethief," however, isn't ready to pop the champagne just yet:

Green Dam Youth Escort may have submarined as predicted, but make no mistake, this isn't over. The objective that drove it the Green Dam plan, the desire to "purify the Internet", still stands. All attempts are being made to wrap the demise of Green Dam in face-saving balm, but there is no disguising the thoroughly humiliating nature of the episode. Nothing stokes the fires of zealotry like a bout of punishing humiliation, and I'd expect to see that zealotry redirected in coming months in an attempt to justify the Green Dam initiative. The recent assault on Google may be a sign of things to come. PC makers may be able to breathe a sigh of relief now, but portals, video sharing sites, social networks, Internet cafes and others may be in for an interesting few months. Watch this space.

A piece in today's Financial Times (subscription required) points out that scrapped mandates sometimes get resurrected later on in somewhat different forms. One example was Beijing's failed attempt to require that all mobile phones sold in China adhere to a new WAPI standard (alternative to Wifi). Strong industry pushback caused that mandate to be scrapped but it's now been revived, the FT writes:

In 2004, the Chinese government surprised the communication industry with an edict that the homegrown wireless encryption standard — in competition to WiFi — would be compulsory for all mobile data products sold in the country. Only just before the May deadline, Wu Yi, then vice-premier, backed down during a visit to the US. After China failed to win recognition for WAPI as an international standard two years later, the industry assumed the episode was over.

But now, WAPI is back, with a demand by the Chinese government that WiFi handsets for sale in the country will only receive approval if they are also equipped with WAPI.

I agree with "Imagethief" that while the Green Dam mandate may never be revived in its present form, we can absolutely expect that Chinese government efforts to clean up Internet smut, promote a "green Internet," and control Internet content in the name of protecting China's children are by no means over.

There is the short run and the long run. In the short run, everybody's unavoidably in for a rough patch which is likely to continue in one way or another through the end of the year with the 60th anniversary of the PRC's founding on October 1st.

In the long run the Chinese public will value companies that treat adults like adults and give them choice and control over their lives. In the long run such products will win consumer loyalty. Ethical business practices that demonstrate respect for users' and customers' interests and rights — despite a very difficult regulatory environment — will serve companies better in the long run. A roll-over-and-play-dead policy is no way to build a brand's reputation in China or anywhere else.

Industry should take the Chinese government at its word that its goal is to protect children, and try to work out sustainable, ethical solutions on that basis. The drive to censor porn does actually have roots in genuine public frustration about children's easy access to smut and violence on the Chinese Internet. There is a real problem and lots of people expect their government to do something about it. Chinese parents' frustration is shared by parents around the world. Whether the problem can actually be solved by technical means without over-censoring and violating civil liberties, however, or whether the problem's real solutions are social and cultural (requiring parents and teachers to do the hard work as parents and teachers instead of foisting most of the responsibility on companies and governments), is subject of debate in China as well as in pretty much every country with substantial Internet penetration.

Because the Chinese government is un-transparent and unaccountable it will keep using porn as an excuse not only to exercise political control but also to go after foreign companies like Google when the mood suits them (with Chinese competitors egging them on) — and maybe even to help give a leg up to home-grown businesses. But it's also important to recognize that the Chinese government views itself as being part of a global pro-censorship, anti-porn freak-out "we have to do something" bandwagon.

Even democratically elected governments are increasingly turning to national-level Internet censorship as a solution to child porn and hate speech, and in some cases also intellectual property theft, and other real or perceived social ills — depending on whose opinion you go by. The German parliament passed a bill two weeks ago to implement a national Internet filtering system. As I wrote in my op-ed for WSJ Asia last month (links added):

In a petition against the bill, German civil liberties groups call it "untransparent and uncontrollable, since the 'block lists' cannot be inspected, nor are the criteria for putting a Web site on the list properly defined." These concerns aren't unfounded: Some German politicians have already suggested extending the block list to Islamist Web sites, video games and gambling Web sites, while book publishers have suggested it would also be nice to block file-sharing sites too.

Since 2007 Australia's Labor government has advocated a policy of mandatory national filtering. In the face of fierce public criticism the censorship plan may be downgraded to a voluntary industry initiative. But critics remain concerned the block list will not be selected and maintained in a transparent or accountable way — and that the process for appeal is very unclear, making it likely that some Web sites will be blocked in error or that "mission creep" could take place without adequate public supervision.

In Britain, a "block list" of harmful Web sites, used by all the major Internet Service Providers, is maintained by a private foundation with little transparency and no judicial or government oversight of the list. At least one British family protection group, Mediamarch, has already spoken out in support of the Green Dam concept of moving censorship from the network down to the device level.

PC makers, mobile phone companies, search engines like Google and Internet content providers will remain under strong government pressure in China to "do something" about things the government doesn't like — just as today they are under pressure in many other countries from Thailand to Turkey.

Industry should give the Chinese government as little excuse as possible to use child protection as an excuse to accomplish other goals that have much less public support and which are contrary to globally recognized human rights norms. Industry should perhaps encourage and maybe even fund in China a set of public forums and independent research efforts and so forth to examine how can industry work together with China's parents, teachers, and government to protect China's children. Initiate efforts to work with Chinese experts to develop strong culturally appropriate Chinese-language parental control software that puts control in the hands of end users. China is a potential R&D test-bed to innovate on genuine best practices in child-protection technologies… to the extent that we can realistically expect technology to be able protect children from humans…

Ultimately the problem extends well beyond China and the solutions must also be approached in a global way. It's too easy once technical censorship systems are put in place for them to be abused, or for there to be "mission creep" even in democratic societies. There is little consensus in democratic countries on questions like: What are the best ways to protect children in the Internet age? Is too much emphasis being placed on technical solutions? Do politicians and civil society need to recognize that ultimately the solutions are social and cultural? How best to develop child protection policy and business practices that really accomplishes the goal of protecting children without encroaching on civil liberties and giving governments the excuse to censor content that goes beyond porn without appropriate accountability mechanisms? We need a more intelligent global policy and industry discourse on these questions, because as it stands global political trends are not on the side of free speech protections… whatever the trend-line might look like in China on any given day.

By Rebecca MacKinnon, Journalist and activist; Co-founder, Global Voices Online
Related topics: Censorship, Internet Governance
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