Categorised | Columns

Green censorship?

Laptop screen showing a caution sign resting on open palm
Going “green” properly requires many considerations (© Steve Woods / sxc.hu)

FOR many of us, the colour green symbolises the environment. Individuals, organisations and countries are going green, not just because it’s popular but more importantly, because it’s crucial to the sustainability of this planet we call home.

However, a recent “green” move by the Chinese government has drawn international flak. To Beijing, green also refers to a smut-free online environment. As part of efforts to, ostensibly, curb pornography among young internet users, it introduced a regulation that the Green Dam Youth Escort filter software had to be installed in all personal computers (PCs) sold in China.

The regulation was supposed to have come into force on 1 July 2009, but has been put on hold, following much protest from information technology (IT) companies and human rights groups. Their concern is that the software does not only filter out pornography but also other political content that the government disagrees with.

IT companies that want to uphold human rights found themselves in a dilemma. They can refuse to comply with the ruling but they will also effectively turn away business from China’s huge market. If they do comply, they risk a costly backlash from consumers for being complicit with a regulation that curbs freedom of expression, and privacy.

But the Chinese government is not alone. The Global Network Initiative (GNI), a coalition of industry players and civil society groups, observes that Green Dam is part of an emerging trend among governments trying to control internet activity in their respective countries.

What’s the fuss?

Few people would quarrel with the concern about minors being exposed to smut. However, with Green Dam, it’s not just pornography but political dissent that may be censored. There are other concerns.

“Industry analysts said the software, as well as curtailing the free-flow of information, would leave computers vulnerable to hacking and would place foreign manufactures at an unfair disadvantage to their Chinese competitors,” the UK Telegraph says in an article, China has not given up Green Dam plan.

“Angry Chinese internet users were joined by foreign computer manufacturers, 22 international chambers of commerce and the US government who all wrote official letters asking the Chinese government to reconsider its Green Dam order,” the report says.

GNI takes issue with the regulation’s implications on human rights and user choice. These include the requirement for mandatory installation and the likelihood that it doesn’t just filter out smut. “Results from independent tests of the software reported on Global Voices Online and elsewhere indicate that political content was indeed part of the website library of filtered content,” GNI says in an 11 June statement.

GNI, whose members include IT companies, civil society organisations, socially responsible investors and academics, was formed on 28 Oct 2008. Its aim is to put in place guidelines for the different stakeholders to play an effective role in protecting the right to freedom of expression and privacy on the internet.

Girls by the sea
Easy access to pornography for children isn’t okay, but neither is the implicated effects of Green Dam
(© Kent Murray / sxc.hu)

The deluge of criticism against Green Dam doesn’t mean the critics think it’s ok for children to have easy access to pornography on the internet. Their contention is that there are other ways to address the problem without impinging on human rights.

“Protection of children from exploitation and exposure to inappropriate material online is a legitimate public policy goal, which many countries around the world pursue,” GNI says. “This goal can be achieved in ways consistent with international norms protecting the rights to freedom of expression and privacy,” it argues.

It cites examples such as user-controlled filtering software, which is widely available and can be managed by parents and guardians.

Emerging global trend

IT companies may be relieved that the Green Dam regulation has been halted but there are concerns that the respite is temporary. Rebecca MacKinnon, a founding member of GNI, cautions that “it would be naïve to think that scrapping the Green Dam mandate means the end of headaches for computer- and device-makers world-wide”. MacKinnon, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Hong Kong, is writing a book about China and the internet.

“More and more governments — including democracies like Britain, Australia and Germany — are trying to control public behaviour online, especially by exerting pressure on internet service providers (ISPs). Green Dam has only exposed the next frontier in these efforts: the personal computer,” she writes in an article, The Green Dam phenomenon, published in the Wall Street Journal on 18 June.

The German Parliament on 18 June passed a bill requiring the police to maintain a list of websites accused of containing child pornography. The list will be distributed to German ISPs, which will be required to restrict access to these websites.

“In a petition against the bill, German civil liberties groups call it un-transparent and uncontrollable, since the block lists cannot be inspected, nor are the criteria for putting a [website] on the list properly defined,” MacKinnon says. “These concerns aren’t unfounded: Some German politicians have already suggested extending the block list to Islamist [websites], video games and gambling [websites], while book publishers have suggested it would also be nice to block file-sharing sites too.”

Close-up of the control key on keyboard
(© Simon Cataudo / sxc.hu)

The British and Australian governments have also adopted mandatory filtering policies in recent years, aimed at blocking children’s access to potentially harmful content. While the intention is good, critics are worried that the block lists may not be done in a transparent and accountable way, and may be done in the absence of a clear appeal process.

In Malaysia

These measures have also caught the attention of the Open Net Initiative, which monitors internet filtering activities, including those in Malaysia. It observes in its 2009 report on Asia that internet filtering in Malaysia has targeted those who criticise the ruling government.

“Critics of Malaysia’s ruling party … continued to be targeted through the use of existing punitive legal mechanisms, as reflected in the bevy of sedition, defamation, and even national security charges levied against the blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin for his online writings,” it says.

Going back to the measures taken by various governments to protect children from smut, such efforts have triggered a global debate on finding better ways to do this without trampling on the public’s legitimate rights to freedom of expression and privacy. The debate also makes us think about the roles played by the government, parents, guardians, the IT sector and the media in achieving this balance.

MacKinnon acknowledges that it may not be reasonable to oppose all censorship in all situations in a world that includes child pornographers and violent hate groups. “But if technical censorship systems are to be put in place,” she says, “they must be sufficiently transparent and accountable so that they do not become opaque extensions of incumbent power — or get hijacked by politically influential interest groups without the public knowing exactly what is going on.” Favicon


Cindy Tham is business development manager at The Nut Graph. She’s also interested in how different people and organisations promote their ideas, brands, products and services on the internet, whether for commercial or non-commercial reasons

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2 Responses to “Green censorship?”

  1. Yeo Kien Kiong says:

    Green also means money, ketupat and Hari Raya.

  2. Paul Ng says:

    I find it amusing that such a program would have a name with Escort Service in it.


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