Green Dam goes in all the wrong directions

The Chinese Government's Green Dam sets an important precedent:  government trying to achieve its purposes by taking control over the technology installed on peoples’ personal computers.  Here's how the Chinese Government's explained its initiative:

‘In order to create a green, healthy, and harmonious internet environment, to avoid exposing youth to the harmful effects of bad information, The Ministry of Information Industry, The Central Spiritual Civilization Office, and The Commerce Ministry, in accordance with the requirements of “The Government Purchasing Law,” are using central funds to purchase rights to “Green Dam Flower Season Escort”(Henceforth “Green Dam”) … for one year along with associated services, which will be freely provided to the public.

‘The software is for general use and testing. The software can effectively filter improper language and images and is prepared for use by computer factories.

‘In order to improve the government’s ability to deal with Web content of low moral character, and preserve the healthy development of children, the regulation and demands pertaining to the software are as follows: 

  1. Computers produced and sold in China must have the latest version of “Green Dam” pre-installed, imported computers should have the latest version of the software installed prior to sale.
  2. The software should be installed on computer hard drives and available discs for subsequent restoration
  3. The providers of “Green Dam” have to provide support to computer manufacturers to facilitate installation
  4. Computer manufacturers must complete installation and testing prior to the end of June. As of July 1, all computers should have “Green Dam” pre-installed.
  5. Every month computer manufacturers and the provider of Green Dam should give MII data on monthly sales and the pre-installation of the software. By February 2010, an annual report should be submitted.’

What does the software do?  According to OpenNet Initiative:

Green Dam exerts unprecedented control over users’ computing experience:  The version of the Green Dam software that we tested, when operating under its default settings, is far more intrusive than any other content control software we have reviewed. Not only does it block access to a wide range of web sites based on keywords and image processing, including porn, gaming, gay content, religious sites and political themes, it actively monitors individual computer behavior, such that a wide range of programs including word processing and email can be suddenly terminated if content algorithm detects inappropriate speech [my emphasis – Kim]. The program installs components deep into the kernel of the computer operating system in order to enable this application layer monitoring. The operation of the software is highly unpredictable and disrupts computer activity far beyond the blocking of websites.

The functionality of Green Dam goes far beyond that which is needed to protect children online and subjects users to security risks:   The deeply intrusive nature of the software opens up several possibilities for use other than filtering material harmful to minors. With minor changes introduced through the auto-update feature, the architecture could be used for monitoring personal communications and Internet browsing behavior. Log files are currently recorded locally on the machine, including events and keywords that trigger filtering. The auto-update feature can used to change the scope and targeting of filtering without any notification to users.

How is it being received?  Wikipedia says:

Online polls conducted by leading Chinese web portals revealed poor acceptance of the software by netizens. On Sina and Netease, over 80% of poll participants said they would not consider or were not interested in using the software; on Tencent, over 70% of poll participants said it was unnecessary for new computers to be preloaded with filtering software; on Sohu, over 70% of poll participants said filtering software would not effectively prevent minors from browsing inappropriate websites.  A poll conducted by the Southern Metropolis Daily showed similar results.

In addition, the software is a virus transmission system.   Researchers from the University of Michigan concluded:

We have discovered remotely-exploitable vulnerabilities in Green Dam, the censorship software reportedly mandated by the Chinese government. Any web site a Green Dam user visits can take control of the PC [my emphasis – Kim].

We examined the Green Dam software and found that it contains serious security vulnerabilities due to programming errors. Once Green Dam is installed, any web site the user visits can exploit these problems to take control of the computer. This could allow malicious sites to steal private data, send spam, or enlist the computer in a botnet. In addition, we found vulnerabilities in the way Green Dam processes blacklist updates that could allow the software makers or others to install malicious code during the update process.

We found these problems with less than 12 hours of testing, and we believe they may be only the tip of the iceberg. Green Dam makes frequent use of unsafe and outdated programming practices that likely introduce numerous other vulnerabilities. Correcting these problems will require extensive changes to the software and careful retesting. In the meantime, we recommend that users protect themselves by uninstalling Green Dam immediately.

There is no doubt that government has a legitimate interest in the safety of the Internet, and in the safety of our children.  But neither goal can be achieved with any of the unfortunate methods being used here. 

Rather than so-called “blacklisting”, the alternative is to construct virtual networks that are dramatically safer for children than the Internet as a whole.  As such virtual networks emerge, technology can be created allowing parents to limit the access of their young children to those networks.

It's a big job to build such “green zones”.  But government is the strong force that could serve as a catalyst in bringing this about.   The key would be to organize virtual districts and environments that would be fun and safe for children, so children want to play in them.

This kind of virtual world doesn't require the generalized banning of sites or ideas or prurient thoughts – or require government to “improve” the nature of human beings.

Published by

Kim Cameron

Work on identity.

One thought on “Green Dam goes in all the wrong directions”

  1. A reader sends this paradoxical sidenote:

    Although so much about this initiative seems misguided, a US company wants to take credit for it:

    LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – A California software publisher will seek an injunction preventing U.S. companies from shipping computers with Chinese anti-pornography software it says was stolen, the company's president said on Saturday.

    Solid Oak Software Inc said it found pieces of its CyberSitter Internet-filtering software in the Chinese program, including a list of terms to be blocked and instructions for updating the software.

    Brian Milburn, president of the privately owned, Santa Barbara-based company, said it was studying its legal options but would seek an injunction against further shipment to China of computers using the suspected pirated software.

    “I look at it this way, if we were shipping iPods over to China and China says, ‘We want all these pirated songs on the iPods when you ship them to us,’ don't you think somebody would be up in arms about that?” Milburn said.

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