The Chinese government appears to have backed down in the face of public opposition to its plans for mandatory installation of censorship software on all new computers.
The Green Dam Youth Escort program, which restricts access to pornography and politically sensitive websites, was due to be compulsorily incorporated in the hard drives of all new machines sold after 1 July, but the state-run media announced today that it would instead be an optional package.
The softening of tone appears designed to head off a wave of criticism about the program, which has brought the government culture of information control into an unusually harsh domestic spotlight.
But it is unlikely to allay suspicions about the developer, Jinhui – a military-backed software firm – and about Green Dam, which tightens government control of the internet at the level of individual computers.
Secret documents published online and investigations by hackers have revealed an embedded blacklist of politically sensitive words in the program, a hole in the system that potentially allows remote users to take control of an individual's computer and a defective pornography algorithm.
Wikileaks has published what it claims is the initial bidding document to develop the software by Jinhui Computer System Engineering. In the April 2008 paper, the Henan-based company promised the ministry of industry and information that it could provide international standards of blocking technology to restrict access to pornography and other "harmful information".
A separate file purportedly contains a coded blacklist of forbidden words, including "Falun Gong", an outlawed spiritual group, and 6.4, the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
Jinhui strengthened suspicions that the primary goal of the new software was to fill holes in the Great Firewall when it boasted that three layers of filtering would be effective "regardless of changing URLs and languages".
Amid growing controversy over the apparent underhand censorship, the state media are now downplaying the compulsory aspect of the software. "PC makers are only required to save the set-up files of the program in the hard drives of the computers, or provide CD-Roms containing the program with their PC packages," the English-language China Daily quoted an official saying yesterday .
"The users have the final say on the installation of the Green Dam Youth Escort, so it is misleading to say the government compels PC users to use the software … The government's role is limited to having the software developed and providing it free."
Chinese language media have yet to make similar reports. In any case, netizens will take a lot of persuading. A survey last week by China's largest portal Sina found more than 80% respondents opposed to Green Dam.