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Pivotal Power

July 1, 2009
China goes too “dam” far

China’s Green Dam project has been postponed.

It has been a long time since I followed the story of the Internet in China closely. I wrote an early Foreign Affairs article that outlined what I thought were the main dynamics, but eventually stopped monitoring the daily goings-on.

But this Green Dam episode is very interesting. Recall that Beijing suddenly announced on May 19 that all PCs sold in China had to ship with a specific filtering software that was designed to block porn. That China’s Internet officials would try to reach right into netizens’ computers is no surprise. While they rely heavily on self-censorship and on monitoring, having that kind of technical access could really come in handy when targeting a particular individual.

The rollout, however, has not gone smoothly. In a show of opposition and solidarity largely absent from its dealings with China, the world’s largest technology companies lodged a complaint in a personal letter to Wen Jiabao, saying that “The Green Dam mandate raises significant questions of security, privacy, system reliability, the free flow of information and user choice.”

The U.S. trade rep, Ron Kirk, also suggested that these restrictions would go against China’s World Trade Organization commitments. China is the world’s second-biggest PC market after the U.S., so this is a big deal.

A University of Michigan-based group also found that the software contains vulnerabilities that a hacker could exploit to gain access to anyone’s PC, even after those problems were supposedly fixed.

The Chinese authorities have now announced that the Green Dam program is being delayed. But Green Dam is just part of a recent crackdown chronicled well by Rebecca MacKinnon. Chinese Internet users are seething, and interest in learning how to circumvent the government blocks is growing. What I want to know is whether the government’s backing down on the Dam will halt one group’s plan for revenge today, July 1. They wrote in an anonymous letter:

For the freedom of the Internet, for the advancement of Internetization, and for our rights, we are going to acquaint your censorship machine with systematic sabotage and show you just how weak the claws of your censorship really are. We are going to mark you as the First Enemy of the Internet. This is not a single battle; it is but the beginning of a war…… NOBODY wants to topple your regime. We take no interest whatsoever in your archaic view of state power and your stale ideological teachings. You do not understand how your grand narrative dissipated in the face of Internetization. You do not understand why appealing to statism and nationalism no longer works. You cannot break free from your own ignorance of the Internet. Your regime is not our enemy. We are not affiliated in any way with any country or organization, and we are not waging this war on any country or organization, not even on you. YOU are waging this war on yourself. YOU are digging your own grave through corruption and antagonization. We are not interested in you, destined for the sewage of history. You cannot stop the Internetization of the human race. In fact, we won’t bat an eyelid even if you decide to sever the transpacific information cables in order to obtain the total control you wanted. The harder you try to roll back history, the more you strain the already taut strings, and the more destructive their final release. You are accelerating your own fall. The sun of tomorrow does not shine on those who are fearing tomorrow itself……

We are the Anonymous Netizens.

If I were a Chinese government official, I’d be a little worried.

I think Rebecca puts the ultimate lesson here well:

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. […]

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…

– Nina Hachigian

Photo courtesy of Flickr user *lj* under a Creative Commons license.

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Nina Hachigian is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the co-author of “The Next American Century: How the U.S. Can Thrive as Other Powers Rise.” She has worked on the staff of the National Security Council in the White House and been a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. She specializes in U.S.-China relations and great power relationships, multilateral institutions and U.S. foreign policy.

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