As you’ve no doubt already heard, China recently announced plans mandating that all new computers sold in that country – including imported PCs – be delivered with pre-installed and pre-configured Web filtering technology beginning July 1, 2009.
Branded Green Dam-Youth Escort, China’s foreign ministry spokesman defends the software claiming it’s “aimed at blocking and filtering some unhealthy content, including pornography and violence” in an effort to protect children.
Putting aside the obvious discussions of censorship versus freedom of information, there’s a fatal flaw in China’s plan. Maybe we shouldn’t tell them this, but Web filtering software alone doesn’t block people from visiting Web sites and/or accessing Web applications.
Surprised? While the Internet used to be primarily about transmitting and accessing fairly static information via HTTP, FTP and e-mail it’s now dominated by Web 2.0 applications such as instant messaging, P2P, VoIP and social networking sites. Savvy Internet users already use tools like anonymizers to mask their browsing habits, and real-time communications and Web 2.0 applications are highly evasive, specifically designed to get around Web filtering, firewalls and other traditional security solutions using a variety of techniques like port crawling, tunneling, onion routing, etc. – after all, their goal is to grow their communities and ensure users have the full experience.
From what I’ve read, neither China nor the media has considered or addressed this. I’m certainly not in favor of China to block access — yes, FaceTime helps organizations control employee Web browsing and use of Web 2.0 applications, where visiting certain sites or using certain applications may be inappropriate in the workplace, put the company at risk or impact productivity — but the Web sites you choose to visit and applications you use at home are for you to decide and parents to control.
The backlash over China’s censorship plans is widespread, including nearly 20 trade groups representing technology companies calling on the Chinese government to reconsider the mandate contending that it “raises significant questions of security, privacy, system reliability, the free flow of information and user choice.” There’s also the California company that claims the mandated Internet filtering software contains stolen programming code. Other articles say the Chinese government has already backed down, retreating on its controversial new web filtering plan, saying the software can be uninstalled or switched off.
It’s not clear yet how all of this will play out, but you have to ask, if China’s mandate won’t be effective, why do it at all?