Web filters are affair for parents, not government

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 July, 2009, 12:00am

The storm of objections to Beijing's order that all computers sold on the mainland must have its specially produced pornography filtering software installed has led to a welcome climbdown. Whether the announcement of a delay hours before the measure was to take effect yesterday is just that, or signals something more, is unclear. What is certain is that authorities are listening to critics.

Given the outrage, they would do well to rethink their approach and be more pragmatic when dealing with matters involving free speech and the internet.

Protests about the Green Dam-Youth Escort program have come from all quarters: foreign computer manufacturers, internet users, freedom-of-expression advocates, western trade officials and software experts. Perhaps if it had been well designed, did not block internet content other than pornographic websites and was not open to hacking, there would have been less of a backlash. That the order was given at short notice during the clampdown surrounding the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square killings aroused suspicion. The nature of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology's directive naturally heightened the mistrust.

There is nothing wrong with a government being concerned about content on the internet that is not fit for children. The Green Dam software may be well intentioned. Elsewhere in the world, though, it is parents, not authorities, who determine what to do about the problem. A government can advise and take steps within the classrooms of schools it operates, but it is not its job to decide what software should be installed on private computers.

Beijing's history of controlling free speech has led to scrutiny of its every decision involving the media and the internet. The manner in which Green Dam was unveiled was bound to prompt doubts. If the government's intentions are honest, it should rethink the project. Scrapping the idea is one option; the only other alternative is to let users decide its worth by advertising its availability or offering it as an optional CD-ROM with new computers.