China postpones computer filter decree

The Chinese government's attempt to censor the Internet by having all new hardware fitted with special filtering software which was to be updated continuously by government agencies has apparently been put on hold only hours from the deadline for its implementation.

Branded "Green Dam" the filtering software was developed by a Chinese company in what the government described as protection for its citizens from "unsuitable material" over the Internet. There was a global outcry from governments and Internet freedom bodies, and the decision on what sites could be banned posed a danger of widening control over content by the Chinese government.

Analysts who have reviewed the program say it also contains code to filter out material the government considers politically objectionable.

The official Xinhua News Agency reported that regulators "will delay" the plan but gave no indication whether it might take effect later or why it was being delayed. It gave no other details.

Top U.S. trade officials had protested the plan as a possible trade barrier (see previous InfoPowa reports). Industry groups warned that the software might cause security problems.

Free-speech advocates attacked the plan as censorship, reports Associated Press.

Duncan Clark, chairman of BDA China Ltd., a Beijing research firm speculated to AP, saying: "I think the cost of the move from trade friction and generally a public relations black eye was becoming pretty clear to the government." The postponement "gets them out of the scrutiny of the international media and business."

Wen Yunchao, a Chinese blogger who has been among the most vocal critics of Green Dam, said he did not believe the announcement marked an end to the plan.

"They are using the word 'delay,' instead of saying they stopped the plan," Wen said. "I think that it's possible that at some point in the future the government could still enforce their policy and install software on personal computers that filters the information people are able to look at. So, I am calling this an intermediary victory."

China has the biggest Internet population, with more than 298 million users; the country accounts for up to 80 percent of world computer production but the government operates the world's most sweeping system of Internet filtering. The new software would raise those controls to a new level by putting the filter inside each PC.

Manufacturers of computers outside China like Toshiba and Acer had already made preparations to comply with the decree, and said they were ready to provide Green Dam on disk with PCs beginning Wednesday. But industry leaders Hewlett-Packard Inc. and Dell Inc. declined to discuss their plans, possibly waiting for a diplomatic settlement.

Associated Press reports that the Chinese government has been steadily increasing its restrictions on the Internet. Last week, the Health Ministry ordered health-related Web sites that carry research on sexually oriented topics to allow access only to medical professionals, and new rules on "virtual currency" used by some game Web sites have been ordered, forbidding the purchase of real goods with virtual money.

Green Dam is apparently already in use in Internet cafes in China and has been installed since the start of this year in PCs sold under a government program that subsidises appliance sales in the countryside, according to manufacturers and news reports.

"All the computers in this 'Appliances to the countryside' program had this installed or received it on disk," said Yi Juan, a spokeswoman for Great Wall Computer Ltd., a leading domestic PC manufacturer.

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