China's Internet Plan May Backfire

The mandatory requirement that all computers sold in China carry security software has caused a stir among Chinese Internet users. Officially, the purpose of the Green Dam-Youth Escort software is to shield kids from online pornography, but most China watchers expect Beijing to use the program to block access to sensitive political and social online resources that the regime considers dangerous. The program is designed to thwart not just the browsing of undesired content, but also attempts to create unwanted content—it would shut down your word-processing program if the novel you're writing contains too many illicit words. And it can learn new words too, automatically installing updates to its text and image vocabularies.

Scary stuff. But there is reason to think that this latest effort at surveillance and social control is not going to be effective in the long run. The Green Dam software is so clunky and creates so many security problems that it may give Chinese citizens a strong incentive to circumvent it. By requiring all PC users to install this particular software on their machines, China's leaders may be shooting themselves in the foot.

The Green Dam software got its start as part of a Ministry of Information project to build a "healthy network environment to protect the healthy growth of young people." In 2008 it began testing the software in 10 cities. Green Dam is already installed in 518,000 computers, including those at 2,279 schools. Despite having gone through several iterations, the program is surprisingly buggy.

Green Dam's much-feared artificial intelligence is supposed to filter images and text separately and then determine if the content is inappropriate, without having to rely on a list of banned sites. But this feature doesn't work reliably. For instance, although Green Dam picks up on images of white-skinned porn actors, it tends to miss dark-skinned ones completely. And a recent video produced by Hal Roberts, a cybersecurity researcher at Harvard University, shows how his attempt to access a Web site associated with Falun Gong, a banned religious group, resulted in Green Dam banning his use of any sites that start with the letter F.

The most curious of Green Dam's problems is that while claiming to eradicate online threats, it has created many of its own. A study by researchers at the University of Michigan has found out that since Green Dam relies on "outdated programming practices," it inadvertently creates security vulnerabilities in the PCs on which it is installed. In other words, the Chinese government is in essence imposing on its citizens a program that would make China's millions of PCs sitting ducks for hackers, to remotely install malware or spyware, or enlist the computer as part of a network of "botnets." Of course, government officials could also commandeer Chinese PCs remotely.

Beijing might have had a better chance to get China's PC-using masses to acquiesce to a well-designed program that was selective about blocking pornographic content. But because Green Dam blocks legitimate content and increases vulnerability to hacking, it may provoke a backlash. Since Green Dam currently works with only one operating system, Windows, it may push some users to experiment with Linux. Others might learn the advanced tricks of Windows or experiment with advanced anticensorship and privacy tools, which may not have been a high priority before the imposition of Green Dam.

Taking on pornography may also be more difficult than Beijing thinks. By most accounts, it is the Internet's biggest killer app. Blocking it would run afoul of the "cute-cat theory of digital activism," which holds that it's always best to post illicit content on extremely popular Web sites. (Shutting down YouTube, for instance, may thwart a handful of dissidents, but it would upset many millions of cat lovers.) The popularity of online pornography, of course, outshines even that of pets. "There are probably more people in China who want to look at porn than want to look at Western human-rights sites or Falun Gong sites," says Ethan Zuckerman, a fellow at MIT's Center for Future Civic Media. There may be no more effective way of promoting awareness of anticensorship tools than putting a bug-ridden program between pornography and a generation of teens.

Beijing's efforts to build a Great Firewall to censor political discussion has been circumvented before. While it's too early to tell what kind of tricks China's Netizens will invent to evade Green Dam, it's certain to provoke a groundswell of artful dodging.