Patrolling the Internet [Global Times commentary]

Different approaches on patrolling the Internet, Global Times, June 18, 2009

The announcement that PCs sold in China after July 1 will have to include “Green Dam” Internet filtering software has caused a lot of reactions, both in China and abroad. Of course, some of the fears raised abroad are the usual ones, of a China that is trying to control its citizens too much.

Many of these criticisms look very different when one is in China, where the citizens might see these controls on objectionable content as a nuisance, if they even think of them at all. But for now I want to focus on a comparison between the approaches to questionable online content, between China and Germany.

Germany recently had a wide-ranging debate about child pornography. It is not only morally very bad, it is also highly illegal, but the Internet has made it only too easy to spread such material. Consequently, it has been discussed whether the government should require Internet service providers and Web hosts to control such content.

“Debate” may be the key word here, however: newspapers report about it, TV discusses it, and the control – if it ever becomes instituted – is at a point removed from the individual user. In effect, it would be a filtering system not unlike what China has been doing so far (which, by the way, I don’t usually notice, whereas foreign media often make it sound as if half of the Internet cannot be reached from China).

If the German government were to announce it is handing out free Internet security software including filters for pornography, many people would gladly take it. Many software packages include some feature for child protection. Even Google’s image search includes a filter to provide “safe search.”

There lies the difference, however: there would have to be a public announcement, first of all, of the intent to do so. Government procurement protocol – even if it sometimes is just protocol – would make it necessary to let different producers of security software make offers of what product with which features they could provide at what cost.

Sure, this would all take a long time. In the end, however, especially if accompanied by a campaign to educate the people about the problematic side of the Internet, free security software would gladly be accepted by most people.

In China, however, the announcement came suddenly: Windows 7 is basically finished, but PC makers will get it in July, and it will be in stores and on PCs at the end of October.

The required installation of “Green Dam,” however, was only announced just recently, and shall be in force from the beginning of July – not much time at all. Furthermore, testing by computer software experts at the University of Michigan showed that the software would make a PC insecure, making it possible for hackers to steal data. And besides, why should it be installed on every PC?

A country may, at best, be like a family. Still, the parents need to lead by good example, good advice, and good practice. Grown-up children will have to be treated differently from young ones. So, a manager on his work PC will probably not need a porn filter, but every parent will consider taking it if it is free and works as it should.

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