Thursday, 2 July 2009

Green Dam and the Great Firewall of China

It appears that, at least for the moment, the government of China has drawn back from vastly extending internet censorship. The development of software, to be installed on all new PCs manufactured, that would have blocked a host of significant web-sites and further interfered with the running of the machine when certain banned keywords were used at all, has, in the form currently developed, been dropped.

The software in question, Green Dam Youth Escort, was ostensibly designed to block pornography and hence protect immature minds from being corrupted. It is clear that this was not the main point of the software. On the one hand, there are presently existent a number of tools for parental control and the Green Dam in fact blocks them. It is even less effective than such existent tools since it is simpler to uninstall it. On the other hand, it was intended to include in its reach any sites that had gay or gay-related content, regardless of whether this included visual material or was primarily concerned with political campaigning. In any event, the Green Dam only works on Windows client applications, blocking Internet Explorer but doing nothing to Macs. Finally, not signposted within the public material surrounding the software, was its real rationale for being developed, namely, to extend control of political discourse.

There are three general points worth making about the development of Green Dam and its failure. Firstly, the development of it was a further reach of government censorship in the sense that it was intended to apply to specific individual machines. In this respect it marked a departure from the general Great Firewall of China. The general firewall acts as a filter on internet content overall and is not a device for spying on specific machines. The general firewall operates by two main mechanisms. These are tampering with the domain name system and blocking the internet protocol. The latter is the more important as it means internet connection can simply be terminated when a banned keyword is loaded. This happens by connection back to the remote server which is first blocked and then re-set.

The second point is that the reason why the Green Dam has failed is not primarily due to political pressure though that has arisen both within and without China. Rather, the software in question was intrinsically vulnerable. On testing it was discovered that it opened machines that had it installed to being turned into remote drones for malicious external users. This severely compromised the security of all machines that had it loaded and it was this that was the focus of complaints from the US and the EU. Hence its defeat was not undertaken in defence of free-speech but in defence of general trade specifications.

The third point is that the authorities in China continue to show the wish to censor both individual machines and the general internet. The clear reasons for this remain the same as always: to suppress dissent and retain control of the narrative as to what is understood as the right political view of any given event or situation. This censorious control is obviously not limited to China but, given the size of China and its increasing importance in global economic and political affairs, the acts of its government in this regard are especially significant. This clearly raises a question about human rights, particularly free speech. However the point that is worth stressing here is that free speech itself has changed its character in a situation in which the public sphere has become global. 

Kant's original argument in What is Enlightenment? that the freedom of the pen was the most important freedom can now be connected closely to his general argument that in the modern world violation of right anywhere can be felt everywhere. The reasons why violations of right can be felt everywhere are because the pen has been superseded as the means of communication by a force of publicity that is much greater than Kant would have expected. The global expansion of the public sphere enables transparent checking of sources, free flow of information and ideas with the potential for criticism of each and every political regime, a key point for anyone who wishes to argue for the need for societies to be open.

The centrality of such extension of the public sphere has also been at the centre of the continuing political upheaval in Iran where the general control of telecommunications has been challenged by the proliferation of contacts between netizens of different states. In terms of political struggle the campaign for internet freedom has hence become a central battle-ground.

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