The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology in China today issued an order that all personal computers sold in China after July 1, 2009 must contain filtering software to prevent users from viewing “unhealthy” material on the Internet.

The new technology, called Green Dam Youth Escort, is intended to block pornographic content and protect children from the physical and mental harm of this inappropriate information. The software is designed to act much like virus-blocking software by continually updating content-blocking lists of pornographic websites. All computers sold in China, including those imported from other countries, will include the installation of the filtering software with a CD that allows the user to re-install the program. The government did not go so far as to require private use of the program, and the end-user of the computer could uninstall the program if he or she had the computer savvy to dismantle the program.

However, given the government’s history of Internet censorship, many question whether this could open the door to the government filtering objectionable or sensitive political material. Charles Mok, chairman of the Hong Kong chapter of the international Internet advisory group, Internet Society, argues, “It’s like downloading spyware onto your computer, but the government is the spy.” Once installed, the software theoretically could be directed to block any type of material or monitor personal usage.

Similar legislative initiatives in the United States, including the Child Online Protection Act, have been deemed unconstitutional by courts for violating the First Amendment. But protecting children from pornographic content is a politically sensitive issue even in the United States, and many politicians may not be comfortable taking a stand against this new addition to China’s Internet restrictions. For the sake of free speech everywhere, we can only hope that constitutional values prevail and that the U.S. takes the lead in opposing this oppressive development.

Spencer Compton

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