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China's Great (Fire)Wall

By Devangshu Datta
June 22, 2009 16:33 IST
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If the Chinese government has its way, the sexual proclivities of the grandchildren of the revolution will be remoulded. As of July 1, every personal computer sold in the PRC must ship with pre-installed censorship software called "Green Dam Youth Escort". 

GDYE uses pre-set, updated lists of banned sites that are automatically blocked. GDYE also actively blocks sites containing textual obscenities like "Lesbian", "gay", "Middlesex", "rapeseed oil", "Falunggong", "breast cancer", "Tiananmen 1989", "Dalai Lama",  etc. 

It also runs a nifty algorithm that judges how much in the way of flesh-tone colours are onscreen. If there's too much flesh processed, the site is blocked. GDYE can routinely log and send personal information about surfing patterns including passwords, etc, to whoever it may concern.

Right now, Green Dam is very buggy and easily bypassed. It only works with Windows and Internet Explorer (which may mean non-Windows OS-es will be de facto illegal from July 1 in China). In a stunning feat of colour-blindness, it fails to register brown or black as "flesh-tones". Once it's installed, astute surfers will switch to watching porn generated by brown and black people. 

This is the latest attempt by the Chinese government to control information flows. Earlier measures like the Great Firewall of China remain in place. GDYE can be implemented better by smarter programming.  As and when it is, life will become even more dangerous for dissidents attempting to get news out of China. 

The aftermath of the Iranian presidential elections makes it obvious why the Chinese are terrified about losing control of the Inter-web. Tiananmen happened before web-enabled cell-cams and Twitter. 

The Iranian protests about the official result have seen millions of Moussavi supporters rallying. The Iranian government has attempted to block access to social networking tools. It has stopped all text messaging services on cellphones. 

Nevertheless, news has got out along with video grabs and digital stills of vast rallies. Activists in Tehran have used Twitter, YouTube and anonymous proxies to manage rallies and ensure the world knows what's happening. Thousands of websites including the BBC homepage were coloured green (Moussavi's supporters wear that colour) in a show of solidarity with Iran. 

In a heartening display of corporate social responsibility, YouTube allowed the posting of disturbing videos of people being beaten and shot. Twitter postponed maintenance downtime at the request of users and the US State Dept, to allow Iranian news flow to continue. Moussavi supporters orchestrated hacks that sent down Iranian government sites. 

It helped that the US doesn't have a decent relationship with Iran. The same US-based corporations have always fallen in line with PRC regulations. Some have cooperated with the Chinese government to persecute dissidents using web-mail. It must be merely coincidental that China is the biggest PC market in the world and that the PRC owns $1 trillion-odd of US government debt. 

India isn't quite as bad as Iran or the PRC. But it's rapidly playing catch up. The IT Act already allows websites to be blocked without notice at the behest of anonymous bureaucrats and on the request of a host of agencies for a variety of reasons.  The list of blocked sites isn't in the public domain, nor are reasons given for a block. Nor is there a right to appeal. 

The only reason one knows about this process at all is that instructions are issued to Internet Service Providers and that means an automatic leak in the information dam. The laws were tightened in 2008 and are due to be further tightened in a pending amendment. As in most other spheres of life, India trails the PRC. But we're getting there. 

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Devangshu Datta
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