In China, a new era of Web censorship looms

A man uses a computer inside an Internet cafe in Changzhi, China, on June 3, 2009. The Chinese government says by July 1, all computers in the country must carry software that can filter out pornography from the Internet, according to the New York Times.

It is a startling crackdown, even in a country infamous for censoring Internet content.

Days after the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square disaster, the New York Times is reporting that the Chinese government will soon force manufacturers across the country to install filtering software on all new PCs. The software, which is designed to block pornography and other "unhealthy" content, could be used to create a database, or black list, of banned sites.

The Wall Street Journal, which originally broke the story over the weekend, is reporting that Green Dam, as the software is known, is ostensibly aimed at "protecting young people from 'harmful' content." (The WSJ piece is subscription only.) But there are widespread concerns that the Chinese government will use the program to bar access to politically objectionable content.

“This is a very bad thing. It’s like downloading spyware onto your computer, but the government is the spy," Charles Mok, chairman of the Internet Society, told the Times.

In the run-up to the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, China launched a preemptive campaign to tamp down on protest. Social-networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook were shuttered, and users across the country reported web outages. Last summer, during the Beijing Olympic Games, international journalists were reportedly denied access to a score of web sites.

As John Timmer at Ars Technica writes, there seems to be some confusion about how the software will be used. The Journal, Timmer points out, "reported that one of Jinhui's founders indicated that the software relies on a database of blocked sites that allows it to be updated remotely." The article continues:

Reuters, however, talked with the same person, who indicated that it can perform semantic and image-based evaluation of incoming content—as such, the founder claimed that it's impossible for the software to be used for general censorship purposes. Still the two capabilities aren't mutually exclusive, and it would certainly be possible to tune Green Dam's semantic engine in a way that enabled it to filter out politics in addition to porn.

Whatever the case, Green Dam will likely make it a lot harder for Chinese dissenters to make their voice heard – no small thing in a nation where freedom of the press is threatened anew every day.

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