Wednesday, June 10, 2009

How will the green dam break?

Exploded view of a personal computerImage via Wikipedia
Very little time, these days, but when one of my readers this morning confessed she missed my viewpoint on a lot of developments in China, including the government's efforts to force PC producers in China to put some censorship software on each computer, I was tempted. Imagethief gave already a good overview of the issue, but I think some key observations are missing.
First a relative side issue: what is happening to the mobile phones? More and more people in China are using their mobile phones and if 3G gets into place - that still seems to be an if - also mobile phones should be equipped with the kind of software most mobile phones cannot have.

When the story on the Green Dam or Youth Escort software broke in the Wall Street Journal, I felt rather tired. Yet another internet story that will match the Pavlov-instincts among many Western media. Indeed, it took a few days, but then also the smaller newspapers had brought their traditional stories about the bad Chinese government and the poor Chinese internet users who had to miss on their daily fix of porn and political dissent.
What I have been missing in all analyses I have seen - and I must admit I have been trying to ignore them - is the main question you should ask in China and elsewhere when morally charged issues emerge. More than once a moral sauce is only there to hide more important questions. Who is making a buck here? Who has profound economic interests in getting this new censorship system in place?
To put that thought in this case into perspective we have to go back to an incident that happened with Tencent's QQ services, then and now China's more powerful social network company. Because of the compulsory censorship filters Tencent had to maintain massive filter operations at their servers, so huge the company's capacity could not deal with the high growth it faced. A few times its systems when down, because their corporate internet filters got overheated.
They then came with a solution that looked initially absolute brilliant. It forced its users during an update of the software to download also a personal internet filter on their own computer and save the company a lot of investments in increasing their own capacity. Of course, this was a stealth operation the users did not know.
Well, that went alright until somebody found the software device and then for a few weeks internet users were busy sending each other the lists of banned words, that made it finally also into the western media.

Over the past decade the filter technology had improved - read: grown - a lot, causing massive capacity problems. Despite investing much in improving internet capacity, China has one of the slowest internet systems because of these massive filter operations, both at internet companies and at the international gateways.
What is easier than to repeat the brilliant trick Tencent's QQ tried a few years ago. The filter problems will be moved to the PC of the internet users and free up capacity and capital at those internet companies and at the relevant ministries involved in filtering the internet.
And just like a few years ago, the system will fail. You can force larger internet companies to comply with the filter regulations. It is much harder to enforce that system on many million PC. It might take a few weeks for Chinese to go around the systems. Western media will have another field day in accusing "China" of damaging "free speech". And then life will return to normal and China's internet users will enjoy their only recently acquired freedom.
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