Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Censorship on the Chinese Information Highway

China is a country with a long and controversial past when it comes to what it always calls “protecting its citizens,” especially on the Internet.

The Chinese government has been known to block Internet addresses and domains which it deems unfit for the public to see. During last year’s Olympic Games, the Chinese government blocked access to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) websites, after the Canadian broadcaster revealed that parts of the opening ceremonies which were supposed to be live, were pre-taped.

So when the government of China says they are censoring something to protect their citizens, it is questionable as to what exactly they are protecting – their citizens, or their own reputation.

China’s government is taking censorship to a whole new level, thanks to technology. Effective tomorrow, all computers sold in mainland China must come with a program called Green Dam-Youth Escort.

This program—at a cost of over $6 million in developmental fees paid for by the Chinese government – is being mandated by government law to be installed on every computer sold from July 1 onwards. By filtering keywords, Universal Resource Locators (URLs), image recognition, and contextual phrase recognition, the application is supposed to make the Internet safer for children, by blocking access to banned sites.

Problem is, those who control which sites are banned and which aren’t are those in the Chinese government – so despite the government’s claim, this program will most likely be used to block all Internet sites which don’t mesh with what the Chinese governments political views.

The Green Dam-Youth Escort program, developed in China, by a Chinese software company, is also full of security holes, which leaves anyone using the application vulnerable to hackers, viruses, Internet worms and other malicious electronic attack.

North American and European business leaders have sent letters directly to the leaders of the Chinese government, asking them to reconsider their mandate. Even governments are getting up in arms over China’s increased censorship of the Internet. The U.S. Department of Commerce sent a letter to the Chinese government, listing several concerns.

The Green Dam-Youth Escort program doesn’t just block access to certain web sites, it actually can crash an Internet browser completely.

A Harvard University researcher posted on YouTube a demonstration, showing how the Green Dam-Youth Escort program freezes a web browser, whenever you type the letter “f” into the location bar. This happened after the letter “f” became associated via the browser’s auto-complete list with the “falundafa.org web” site, which is has ties to Falun Gong – a religious sect banned by the Chinese government.

Falun GongImage by Raideres via Flickr

Falun Gong has no links to pornography, but because they believe in values which the Chinese government doesn’t agree with, they are blocked by the software.

Clearly the government is increasing its ability to control the Internet – they can update the software’s list of banned sites at anytime, just like your anti-virus software updates itself all the time with the latest security patches.

Though unlike your security software, which protects you from electronic harm, China’s Green Dam-Youth Escort software is only protecting the Chinese government’s shady reputation from being exposed to those who matter most – it’s citizens.

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