Why China's Green Dam Proposal Endangers American Technology and Human Rights

When any government demands control of its citizens' computers, the world must take note. I urge the technology community to tell Beijing that control through mandatory software is unacceptable.
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China recently announced a policy that every computer sold must be packaged with specific software that bars it from being used to visit certain Internet sites. This so-called "Green Dam" software ostensibly is aimed at blocking child pornography and other vile sites. In Chinese, "green" and "clean" are interchangeable -- here, the idea being that software is supposed to keep computers clean.

Why should we care what China does as it is a sovereign, Communist, non-democratic country? It shares no version of our First Amendment rights, and does not claim to have a free marketplace of ideas. We can even agree with the Chinese that child pornography is heinous, immoral and should be stopped in any possible way.

But the fear inside and outside of China is that this government mandate endangers human rights and technology in general. Requiring a specific software program on every computer is an invitation for both disaster and for unprecedented control. If this mandate stands, there are three possible outcomes: the software works as promised, it doesn't work, or whether or not it works it will create havoc.

As to whether the Green Dam program works, we are doubtful. For one thing, the government paid two tiny unknown Chinese software companies over $30 million to develop this software. Chinese procurement policy is not as transparent as ours, so competitive bidding and competence may have been sacrificed for kickbacks or favoritism. And one software company is already claiming that its filtering technology was illegally appropriated by the Chinese government and used in Green Dam.

But even if it works on some level, Americans would have to view Green Dam as ethically flawed. Our view of basic human rights is that every individual should have the right to explore the world, through freedom of digital travel. This is not just about child pornography, but more about controlling access to information. We know the Chinese government will use Green Dam to block discussions of Tibet, Taiwan, and freedom. And while we can understand a country's right to not adopt our laws, we struggle with how far any country should be allowed to censor and block its citizens from access to information. Plus, it doesn't seem right to require every computer maker to package and pay for any specific type of software.

But let's assume we can accept a country's sovereign right to require that censorware be packaged with a computer, this type of software will certainly be hacked. Smart programmers can get around almost any block, and the largest country in the world mandating the same software program on every computer is an invitation for hackers.

And whether it is hackers or the Chinese government, the risk is not only censorship, but control or even massive destruction. Imagine if you could control the software put on one billion computers in a country. You could destroy the computers by creating a virus. You could shut them off all at once. You could turn them on and send them to the same landing page. You could turn them into bots whose mission is to connect to the Internet and destroy other computers or even the Internet itself. They could be turned into hacking devices aimed at disrupting the world's financial system, electrical grid, water systems, websites, or other sources of connectivity, finance and commerce. As almost everything is run by computer, with control of millions of computers, it just takes imagination, power and desire to mess up the world on a grand scale.

Computers are powerful tools. When any government demands control of its citizens' computers, the world must take note. I urge the technology community to resist publicly any further such efforts and explain to Beijing that control through mandatory software is unacceptable.

Gary Shapiro is the president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association.

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