Score one for China's growing legions of cyber-citizens.
It took a feisty community of bloggers, a swell of satirical cartoons and some petitioning by one of the country's best-known rights lawyers, but the Chinese government appears to have taken a slight step backward in its plan to install intrusive filtering software on all new computers from July 1.
The Green Dam program will still be a requirement for all new computers, domestic and imported, sold in China. But government officials have appeared in state media this week emphasizing that manufacturers will be permitted to include the software as a CD sold with the computer, rather than a required pre-install - what experts say may prove to be a critical difference in how many households actually end up using the software.
"The reaction that the initial announcement elicited in China, it does seem to have caused the Chinese government to slightly back off," said Ian Brown, a senior research fellow with Britain's Oxford Internet Institute, fresh from a research trip in Hong Kong. "Obviously if it was pre-installed then, yes, [consumers]can choose to uninstall it, but only a very small number of people ever uninstall software or change software defaults."
Green Dam has been seen as the latest government attempt to rein in the availability of politically sensitive information and to control expressions of dissent online. Fittingly, it also inspired a wave of online wrath. Among the protests have been satirical cartoons depicting a Japanese-anime-style Green Dam Girl in a green army uniform complete with short skirt, wielding a rabbit as a weapon in some sketches, removing the undergarments of Windows XP girl in another.
China's Great Firewall already routinely blocks YouTube and blogs linked to hosts like Blogspot and Wordpad; earlier this month, Chinese users, or "netizens" as they are referred to here, also endured censorship of Twitter, the photo-sharing site Flickr and several Chinese-language forums ahead of the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown on June 4.
Government officials maintain Green Dam will block "unhealthy" content, mainly pornography and violence, from children. But testers have found Green Dam would block websites ranging from politically sensitive to silly, blocking sites related to Falun Gong and Tibet, for instance, but also sites featuring pigs or babies for showing too much flesh.
More seriously, analysis from overseas suggested the software contained massive security problems, leaving private e-mails and personal data open to hackers or, potentially, government investigators.
The software's developer, Jinhui Computer System Engineering - which was paid $6.6-million - has also been ordered to produce a security patch against outside hackers.
"Green Dam is deeply flawed and poses critical security concerns for users," according to a review by the OpenNet Initiative, a network of university researchers that includes the University of Toronto.
The case has drawn the attention of human rights lawyer Li Fangping, a thin, bespectacled man who has been beaten by thugs and arrested for work on politically sensitive cases. Last week, he filed a formal request with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology for a rare public hearing on the matter and further disclosure about the commissioning and capabilities of the software.
"China sells about 40 million PCs a year. So this compulsory order is relevant to the broad interests of all citizens, and it is important that citizens have the right to learn more about it," Mr. Li said. "This is a serious invasion of citizens' right to knowledge. We have no idea how this software would affect users' internet safety, the safety of their information and right to privacy."
Though Mr. Li has not yet received a formal response from the ministry, he said he has been overwhelmed with public support for his actions. More than 80 per cent of online respondents were opposed to the software's distribution in new computers, according to a poll conducted by leading Chinese Web portal Sina.com.
Still, human-rights groups say they will continue to monitor what government directives go out before July 1, pointing out that the much-celebrated announcement came only in English-language, and not Chinese-language, state media.
"That quote in English seems like it's for foreign consumption, so we cannot be sure," said Mi Ling Tsui, a spokeswoman for the New-York based Human Rights in China, which supported Mr. Li's petition. "Personally, I am not optimistic [the hearing will be granted] But I think it is important that these challenges continue. All you can do is ask."
Special to The Globe and Mail