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UPDATED: June 21, 2009 NO. 25 JUNE 25, 2009
A Green Storm On the Internet
Computer filtering software stirs controversy

This software drew a great deal of attention and criticism after the notice was issued.

"Since it mainly targets juveniles, why should it be installed on every computer?" asked a netizen whose screen name was "qiushui".

"It is reasonable for parents to worry about their children's online environment," said Ma Guangyuan, an economics expert with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "But this is no excuse for demanding that all new computers be installed with the software."

But Zhang Chenmin, General Manager of Jinhui, said the users have the final say on the installation of Green Dam Youth Escort, so it is misleading to say the government is forcing PC users to use the software. "We only provide an option for computer users, especially the parents of minors. Users can choose whether to install it or not," said Zhang.

"The government's role is limited to having the software developed and providing it free of charge," said Liu Lihua, an MIIT spokesman told China Daily. "The software can be switched off and uninstalled by computer users."

Another netizen going under the screen name of "doudouxiong," who claims to be the mother of a middle school student, voiced her concern on the voluntary installation. "My son is a Web game fan who always sneaks into Internet cafes to play games. I can control him by installing this software at home, but I bet no Internet cafes would install it, and this can only make more students go there. So what is the use of this software?"

On May 19, the China Internet Network Information Center issued the results of a survey concerning where juveniles surf the web most. It showed that 57.5 percent of children choose Internet bars. Among middle school students, 48.4 percent surfed at Internet cafes, while only 19.1 percent choose to surf at schools. The proportion of children who surf at home declines as juveniles get older.

BANNED CAT: This picture of cartoon cat Garfield toys could be blocked by the new Internet filter software Green Dam Youth Escort because of its yellow color (CFP)

A survey conducted by Sina.com, China's major news portal, showed that 83 percent of 26,232 respondents did not want to use the software. Similar online polls conducted by other leading Chinese Web portals also revealed little interest in the software. On Tencent.com, more than 70 percent of poll participants said it was unnecessary for new computers to be preloaded with filtering software. On Sohu.com, greater than 70 percent of poll participants said filtering software would not effectively prevent minors from browsing inappropriate websites.

Many netizens also showed concerns over perceived threats to their privacy. "Since the software can record surfing history and my parent might check that, it is an intrusion on my privacy," said Wei Hong, a Beijing junior middle school student.

Many adults voiced strong concerns over the threat to their privacy. "I am afraid that even my personal data can be recorded by the software," said a netizen using the screen name "shubao."

But Zhang believed this concern is unnecessary. "This software is not that advanced, and I promise that it is not a tool spying on the user's personal information."

Some scholars challenged the transparency of the new regulation. Lu Jingjian, a director with the China Computer Federation, a nationwide association on computing science, said there should be a public hearing if the government wants people to use a uniform software package. "Since it uses financial capital funds, officials should gather public opinions on this," said Lu.

Qiu Baochang, a senior attorney with China Consumers' Association, defended the government's policy. He said that a public hearing was not necessary since the 41.7 million yuan was from the Central Government's budget, which had already been approved by the legislature during its annual session.

Technical Defects

Southern Weekly, one of China's most popular newspapers, published an article revealing a major defect in the new software.

Jinhui claimed that Green Dam Youth Escort recognizes pornographic images by analyzing the skin-colored regions of human faces. However, according to the article, the software is incapable of recognizing pictures of nudity in some darker ethnic groups while it is sensitive to images with large patches of yellow. Therefore, the yellow-colored cartoon cat Garfield can run afoul of the software.

The company attempts to step around this inadequacy by using a dialog box during installation that states, "This product filters inappropriate content on the Internet, but does not guarantee that all inappropriate content is filtered or that all filtered content is inappropriate."

"Although no software can claim to be 100-percent accurate in filtering, this mistake is very ridiculous," said Fang Xingdong, a Beijing-based IT expert.

On June 11, the University of Michigan's Scott Wolchok, Randy Yao and J. Alex Halderman published an analysis of Green Dam Youth Escort. They located various security vulnerabilities that can allow "malicious sites to steal private data or send spam" and let "the software makers or others install malicious code during the update process."

On the same day, an article pasted on the major Chinese Web portal Netease.com reported that the software's master password could be easily cracked.

"We are aware of the software's security problems, and the developer was told to rush patches to solve the problem," said Jinhui's Zhang. "We admit that we focused more on the filtering function than the security aspects, and we are now making efforts to deal with all this."

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