Iranian protesters have showed the world what a powerful tool the Internet can be against oppression. On the other side of the world we've seen the other end of this tug-of-war, as Chinese censors have had to admit the failures of their plan to impose Internet censorship by fiat.
We're referring to "Green Dam," spy software that Beijing was poised to mandate for all personal computers in China. That order was supposed to go into effect today, but last night state media announced it was "delayed." We hope that's code for "will never be implemented," but it's too soon to say.
Green Dam was billed as antipornography software, but it actually does much more. It censors political speech, stores screenshots of users' computers and has the ability to shut down non-Internet applications if a user is typing something it doesn't like. A California-based software company, Solid Oak, says the software copies portions of its proprietary code and has threatened to sue computer makers that install it. Green Dam is also poorly designed: The porn filter doesn't work well and it has programming flaws that make users of the program susceptible to hacking.
Beijing's change of heart follows intense diplomatic and industry lobbying: On June 24, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke sent a letter of complaint to their Chinese counterparts requesting the Green Dam order be revoked. They pointed out that the policy raised questions about China's compliance with World Trade Organization rules and put companies in an "untenable position" by requiring them to install flawed software on their machines. The European Union Chamber of Commerce also chimed in earlier this week.
Meanwhile, computer makers and trade associations world-wide signed an open letter to Premier Wen Jiabao, asking him to stop the order. This is rare show of commercial bravery in a country where businesses usually fear to differ with the government; their demands echoed those of Chinese Internet users, who decried the program as unwieldy and patronizing.
It's too early to tell why Beijing backed down from its plan. A statement posted on the Web site of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology last night defended the software, saying it was compliant with China's WTO commitments and pointing out that users had the option of deactivating the program. The statement claimed the delay was permitted because manufacturers had not had enough time to prepare.
But we hope it's because China's Internet censors are learning that when it comes to controlling online dialogue they are fighting a losing battle.