Recent events in China suggest that a bunch of technological laggards are trying to play in a field they do not know much about. This ignorance causes increasing social tensions between the government and the netizens, in most cases unnecessarily. In the past month, the government has blocked sites such as blogger and twitter, and then they require the use of filtering software Green Dam, and in the most recent developments, CCTV reported on Google as spreading pornographic information, and the government conveniently suspended its Chinese operations.
Most of such actions were performed by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology which actually sent out a direct mandate requiring the pre-installation of Green Dam filtering software on personal computers. This mandate appears in what is often called “Red-Letterheaded Directive” (红头文件), which are frequently used by higher-level government agencies to require lower-level agencies to perform certain actions. Yet you do not implement technological innovations this way, even if Green Dam could be called an innovation. In addition, the Internet has changed the rule of game so much that such mandates can no longer work as effectively as it would in many other areas where the government is comfortable with. The pre-installation requirement has met with fierce opposition from Internet users as well as some traditionally official media such as Chinese Youth Daily, which has probably had enough of censoring itself.
Filtering content potentially harmful to minors is often necessary, and it is being practiced in opener societies such as the US and Australia. Why would such policies backfire in China specifically? The main reason is that the dubious ways of the Ministry defeat even the ministry’s declared intention when the game happens in a field that respects openness and transparency. This is rather typical of Chinese government officials who do not seem to understand how information actually flows and how frustration and hostility can build up if such flows get interrupted. Nor could they successfully use the neutral tool of the Internet in their own defense as President Obama would do in his skilled use of Youtube and other web sites to advocate his agenda.
What China is doing right now is to fund a defective product (Green Dam is reported to have security loopholes), pushing it to users through a problematic channels (government mandate), without involving any stakeholders and without balancing it with alternative messages, methods or medium. What a perfect recipe for disaster! Just as the name suggests, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (strange bedfellows at best), cannot actually implement industrial principles of command and control to information technology without balancing these principles with a spirit of support and nurturing. In the case of Green Dam, one major missing piece is the availability of content that children can safely access or acceptably use. Chinese children needs the likes of pbskids.org or Seussiville, sites that they can go to for help. If there are such sites that children can safely browse, there would have been much less opposition to the use of filtering. As in parenting, you cannot just control without providing support. That leads mostly to alienation and anger.
It is possible that the government knows how to play the rules of the Internet, but it just chooses to make exceptions for itself due to its own hidden agenda. That would cuts deep into its credibility. The lack of transparency has led to much suspicion about corruption, invasion of privacy and security concerns in the Green Dam case. By the time the public become mostly sour and suspicious about such softwares, China has lost the opportunity to reasonably and legally censor really harmful pornographic content for minors. An opportunity is lost for government to appear before the public as an authoritative rather than authoritarian player in the way it deals with the Internet and its users.
A huge digital divide looms between government officials who act like bulls in a china shop and netizens who are increasingly shrewd in figuring things out in spite of blocking and banning. Much of the recent controversy centers around the software. But to my understanding, what China needs most is not a better web filter. It needs a CTO.