China's internet backdown welcomed

China’s ambitions to strengthen control of the internet with filtering software became a show of the limits of its power on Wednesday, as activists and industry groups welcomed an abrupt delay of the contentious plan.

The surprise climbdown was reported late on Tuesday by Xinhua news agency, which said the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology would “delay the mandatory installation of the controversial ‘Green Dam-Youth Escort’ filtering software on new computers”.

Officials said the software was intended to stamp out internet pornography, and computer companies had originally been told that from Wednesday they had to bundle “Green Dam” with any personal computers heading to stores for sale in the country.

But the order was assailed by opponents of censorship, industry groups and Washington officials as rash, politically intrusive, technically ineffective and commercially unfair. PC companies have mostly avoided making firm public statements on the issue.

Internet professionals and activists were divided over whether the plan will drift into oblivion. But controversial efforts in past years to further control internet blogs and bulletin boards have died quiet deaths without being officially revoked.

“This was the result of combined pressure from domestic internet users and an array of forces at home and abroad,” said Wen Yunchao, an editor at popular Chinese website Netease.

Wen said the government might eventually seek to resurrect the plan and make installation mandatory.

“But no matter what, for the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology to make this last-minute decision was a small victory for the forces of justice,” said Wen.

In a statement on its website, the ministry accepted the criticisms of computer companies.
It gave no new deadline for installing the software but left open the possibility of the censorship scheme returning in some form.

The ruling Communist Party remains wary of the internet, which now has about 300-million users across China.

Chen Yongmiao, a Beijing-based rights activist who has campaigned against Green Dam, said it was probably more the complaints from Washington and many industry groups that tipped the government from pressing ahead with the July 1 deadline.

“China’s government is too strong and confident to be scared off by internet activists alone,” said Chen.

“But this will embolden internet users. They have become more confident and more united thanks to the fight against Green Dam ...The government will be more cautious about internet controls.”

United States pressure
The ministry statement rejected arguments that the plan threatened free speech, violated international trade rules or was chosen without proper tender processes.

Ed Black, president of the Washington-based Computer and Communications Industry Association, said the backdown showed that the US government still has some sway in Beijing.

“This shows that when US trade officials get involved, they get results,” Black said in a statement sent by email.

“Internet censorship is a widespread problem, and for too long, companies have been left on their own to negotiate with other countries,” he said.

Computer companies have been coy about directly criticising the plan, perhaps reflecting their big stake in China’s market, and they remained so on Wednesday.

Taiwan-based Acer, the world’s third-largest personal computer maker, said it would seek clarification from the Chinese government and would meet any new deadline.

“There are differing opinions on the policy, but we’re just a PC seller, and we don’t make the rules,” said Acer spokesperson Henry Wang.

Hewlett-Packard spokesperson Pamela Bonney declined to comment, and pointed to an earlier statement that it was working with the trade industry association to seek further information.

Chen Ying, an official at China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology who promoted the filter plan, declined to answer questions about its future on Wednesday.

The loudest opposition came from many Chinese internet activists, bloggers and lawyers who threatened protests, lawsuits and other actions against the scheme.

“This shows that social pressure can’t be ignored, that public opinion has some impact,” said Zhou Ze, a Beijing lawyer who challenged the legality of the Green Dam plan.—Reuters

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