China Mostly Abandons Computer Censorship Plan

Back in June, I wrote a few pieces about China's plans to require all computers sold within its borders to include pre-installed censorship software. At that time, it looked like they were just delaying their efforts, as the software wasn't ready yet. News out today suggests a much broader win for critics of its censorship goals. Instead of requiring the software on all computers, China has decided only to require the software on computers intended for public use, like those located in Internet cafes and schools.

The NY Times reports:

The industry and information technology minister, Li Yizhong, said the notion that the program, called Green Dam/Youth Escort, would be required on every new computer was "a misunderstanding" spawned by poorly written regulations.

That must have been quite a misunderstanding. U.S. computer companies were pretty sure the regulation required the software on all computers they would sell in China. So sure that their complaints led to U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk sending a joint letter to China demanding that the regulation be altered, or else they would formally lodge their grievance to the World Trade Organization.

The claim that this was a mere misunderstanding seems even stranger given that China claimed the regulation was originally delayed in order to give computer makers more time to work through technical difficulty in the software's installation.

The Times also reports:

The Thursday statement by Mr. Li appeared to make that suspension permanent. Mr. Li said the government would neither require the program to come pre-installed on new computers or force computer makers to include the program on a CD with optional software.

This news must come as a huge relief to foreign computer makers. Even beyond any ethical issues that these manufacturers may have been grappling, from what I read, the Green Dam software was a complete disaster. As I noted in June, that's probably what led to the delay, and possibly what led to today's news that China is abandoning its broader requirements for the software.

This is also great news for the Chinese people. Although China claimed the software would only be used to censor pornography, many censorship critics worried that government officials might use the software to keep out ideas they find politically dangerous. Of course, even without this software, other means of internet censorship can still be used as a tool to keep out some foreign content, but at least today's news allows Chinese citizens to use their computers more freely in the privacy of their own homes.