Why should U.S. computer manufacturers care about censorship in China?

Beijing recently gave computer manufacturers six weeks’ notice that all new PCs sold in China must have Green Dam software installed on their hard drives.  The name for the government-developed filtering program comes from references to a regulated Internet as “green.”

Many people inside and outside China are saying that “green” doesn’t translate into pornography-free and safe for children, as the government claims.  Rather, widespread installation of Green Dam could mean an Internet “unpolluted” by political speech unsavory to the government.  The fear appears justified in light of China’s reputation as one of the most censored countries in the world and the censorship of Twitter, Bing, Hotmail, and other sites in China last week just before the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.


U.S.-based computer companies have expressed concern over the new rules, which would take effect July 1.  A coalition of U.S. business organizations, including ones to which China’s main suppliers, Apple, Dell, and Hewlett-Packard belong, issued a statement asking for “open and healthy dialogue” about “privacy…freedom of expression…security and user choice,” according to the New York Times.  China’s major computer providers are also hoping the government changes its mind about Green Dam because they say carrying out the request by the end of the month is technically not possible.

Widespread installation of Green Dam would be a detriment to the people of China on a number of levels.  First, involuntary censorship of all adults’ Internet access is a human rights violation.  Green Dam developers have said that users will be able to disable the software, but U.S. programmers counter that no one knows exactly what the software can and cannot do.  Plus, some users in China might not have the knowledge or ability to disable Green Dam on their own.

When it works, the software “malfunctions” in sinister ways.  Along with pornographic sites, all LGBTQ sites have gone missing, according to teachers in schools where Green Dam is already installed.  Sites with information about AIDS and sexual health are likely impossible to access as well.  Chinese citizens have a right to this kind of valuable information as much as they have a right to read and express political sentiment on the Internet that some fear Green Dam will place even further out of reach.

But even if computer companies in the U.S. weren’t concerned about human rights violations, there would still be practical reasons for all Americans to reject Green Dam installation on Chinese computers.  For one thing, Internet censorship is difficult to contain within a physical borders of a country. In May, Long Tu of Mississagua, Ontario discovered that the so-called Great Firewall of China extended to his local library.  Mr. Tu, author of a book about the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners, found that many sites related to his research were censored.  According to the Epoch Times,  the library gets its filtering software from a company, Websense, that has been under scrutiny from Amnesty International for selling similar software to China.  The extreme interconnectedness of the web makes it reasonable to suspect that similar incidents take place in the U.S. more or less frequently.  A “green” Internet isn’t safe for anyone.

Politically, Google has already learned the price of abetting the Chinese government’s censorship efforts.  They had been criticized since 2005 for modifying the search engine according to China’s requests, making topics relating to Tienanmen Square and Falun Gong invisible.  In early 2007, its founders admitted, “On a business level, that decision to censor… was a net negative.”  Supporting censorship never looks good.

Not only does it do obvious harm to the Chinese, but we in the U.S. also wonder how high a price our own freedom of expression has in the eyes of computer companies.

If U.S. manufacturers install Green Dam for China, they would look criminally out of touch with the information age that the U.S. helped to usher in.  Aiding Chinese censors would be a refusal to abide by the principle of net neutrality.  Instead of simply moving information, companies would be making decisions about what information to move.  No one has the right to do that except the individual—no matter the individual’s country of origin.

UPDATE, 6/24U.S. trade leaders have taken a fairly strong stance against Green Dam in letters to the Chinese government released today.  Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said,

China is putting companies in an untenable position by requiring them, with virtually no public notice, to pre-install software that appears to have broad-based censorship implications and network security issues.

U.S. Trade Represenatitive Ron Kirk said,

Mandating technically flawed Green Dam software and denying manufacturers and consumers freedom to select filtering software is an unnecessary and unjustified means to achieve that objective, and poses a serious barrier to trade.

Both warned China that it may be going against World Trade Organization rules with its mandate.  With luck we’ll soon see Beijing growing embarrassed about its unreasonable demands.

UPDATE 6/30:  With only hours left before mandatory Green Dam installation was scheduled to take effect, Beijing has rescinded its demands.  Government spokespeople say that the policy is only delayed because industry leaders had complained about short notice, but other Chinese citizens believe that the government is hoping the whole fiasco will be quickly forgotten.

About Blog of the National Coalition Against Censorship

Blogging Censorship is where National Coalition Against Censorship staff weigh in on the censorship issues on their minds.
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