July 28, 2011: China has the largest number of Internet users (465 million) of any nation. That's nearly a quarter of the two billion Internet users on the planet. Most of them are new users. Four years ago, China only had 132 million users. But now that growth is slowing to under ten percent growth a year. Nearly two-thirds of Chinese Internet users do so from their cell phones. This is a worldwide trend. But the Chinese Internet user base is different for another reason.
Another worldwide trend has police state governments trying to tightly control how their subjects use the Internet. While China is considered the most vigorous and effective censor of the Internet, many other nations are using the same techniques. These include Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. None of these nations are democracies. All are police states or monarchies determined to keep their subjects from having free use of the Internet. In most cases, the real purpose is to prevent the people from overthrowing the rulers. But there are many other nations, most of them democracies, who are also striving to control the Internet to protect their citizens from unsavory material. These nations include Australia, Bahrain, Belarus, Eritrea, Malaysia, Russia, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. Most other nations are watching these efforts, as there are many people on the planet who see the Internet as more of a threat than an opportunity.
China leads the way in all this. But it isn't all about politics. For the last few years, China has made a major effort to "protect" adult Internet users from pornography, and children on the Internet from, well, everything. China has been extreme at times. For example, three years ago, the government notified all companies selling computers in China that they had to install new filtering software (called "Green Dam Youth Escort"). This was mainly an effort to prevent Chinese, especially children, from having access to pornography, although Green Dam could be used to block anything. Green Dam basically controlled Internet access to the PC it was installed on. Green Dam checked with a government database (of banned web sites) before allowing the user to actually visit any site. This would make it more difficult to get around existing Internet censoring efforts. The government already does this via its Great Firewall of China (officially the "Golden Shield") system, that filters, and eavesdrops on, Internet traffic coming into, and leaving, China.
In fact, Golden Shield is more about controlling what is said by Internet users inside China, than in controlling what they have access to outside China. This effort leads to unexpected abuses. For example, a senior official of the Golden Shield operation was arrested for taking over $5 million in bribes to help one anti-virus software company put a rival out of business. The rival fought back in the courts, and exposed the corruption within Golden Shield.
Green Dam was a different kind of corruption. Within a few weeks of the Green Dam announcement, an American software publisher, Solid Oak Software, accused the Chinese of theft. Turns out Green Dam is based on the Solid Oak product Cybersitter software, and there's plenty of incriminating evidence in the Green Dam code. This case continues, with recent accusations that the Chinese government has been using hackers to gain an edge in the litigation.
But wait, there's more. Many Chinese Internet users got uncharacteristically vocal about using Green Dam in an attempt to shut down access to pornography (and who knows what else.) The uproar was so great, that the government announced, four weeks after the initial Green Dam order went out, that it was all a misunderstanding. Green Dam could be turned off by the PC user, and the government just wanted to make sure everyone had access to it. The only objective here was to give parents a way to keep pornography from their kids. The government still insisted that all PCs shipped after July 1st would have Green Dam installed. The government backed off, but is still trying to get Green Dam installed in PCs used in schools or Internet Cafes.
The Green Dam project appears, to many Chinese, as yet another government attempt to control their lives. Two decades of rapid economic growth has left millions of Chinese willing to talk back to the communist police state that still rules the country. The government officials who created Green Dam are apparently surprised as the intensity of the public response, especially as it came at the same time as the 20th anniversary of the bloody crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrations in the capital. This time, the protests are on the Internet, and the government doesn't know where to send the troops and tanks.
The growing number of governments seeking to control Internet content are all concerned about how they have lost control of information flow because of the Internet. This is a matter of life and death for a dictatorship, but can be very annoying for leaders (honest or otherwise) in a democracy. No leader, elected or otherwise, likes to have contrary opinions popping up. Something must be done.