June 8, 2009

China To Require Web Filtering Software On All PCs

The Chinese Government is mandating that all personal computers sold within the country include software that blocks pornographic web sites and other sites it deems objectionable. 

Jinhui Computer System Engineering Co., which was awarded a government contract to develop the "Green Dam-Youth Escort" filtering software, said Monday that the software would give parents additional oversight by preventing online access to sites with pornographic images or language. The company is currently compiling a database of sites to block.

Although the software is initially targeting pornographic Web sites, it could ultimately be used to block other sites as well, such as those based on keywords rather than specific URLs.

Zhang Chenmin, general manager of Jinhui, said parents can also make their own additions to the list of blocked sites.

"If a father doesn't want his son to be exposed to content related to basketball or drugs, he can block all Web sites related to those things," Zhang told The Associated Press.

Although users can disable blocking of any site on the list, or even uninstall the software completely, they will not be able to view the full database, he added. 

The software does not track or transmit data to third parties.

With more than 250 million Internet users, China has the world's largest online population.  However, the nation's government is among the strictest in controlling its citizens' use of the Internet.

Using tools such as network-level filters installed at China's Internet service providers, the government consistently blocks political sites, particularly those it deems socially destabilizing, such as sites that challenge the ruling Communist Party, foster democratic reform or support independence for Tibet.

The government also prohibits Internet pornography, and rolled out a nationwide crackdown this year that resulted in the shutting down of nearly 2,000 Web sites. Sites such as Google and Baidu, the nation's most popular Internet search engine, have also been criticized for linking to suspect Web sites.

Harvard University Internet censorship expert John Palfrey called the latest requirements "a potential game changer in the story of Internet control," since it effectively moved China's "Great Firewall" closer to the individual user, making the censorship more effective.

Although users can uninstall the software or unblock sites, many won't know how or won't bother, Palfrey told the Associated Press during an interview in Washington, D.C.

There's also the possibility the software would leave behind traces, giving users enough uncertainty that they would practice self-censorship, he said.

"One of the most effective parts of China's controls is self-censorship, the perception that you are being watched or blocked," Palfrey said.

While the software is not designed for monitoring usage, Palfrey said a future releases could add surveillance capabilities, something far easier to implement once the basic software is installed.

Zhang said his firm had won a $3 million contract with the Chinese government last May to develop the software and distribute it to computer makers at no cost within one year. 

The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday that China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology had notified computer makers on May 19 that any PCs sold in China as of July 1 must come preloaded with the new software.

The software must either installed on the hard drive or come enclosed on a compact disc, and PC makers would be required to inform Chinese authorities how many PCs they have shipped with the software, the Journal reported.

The ministry had a notice posted on its Web site saying all primary and secondary schools were required to install the software on every school computer by the end of May.

Educators "should fully realize the damage that harmful online information does to the physical and mental health of primary and secondary school students," it said.


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