Beijing To Block Unhealthy Internet Content

The Chinese government has demand that a new Internet filter be included with all personal computers sold in the country. The filter is designed to protect people from pornography, but many believe it would allow authorities to censor the Net even more thoroughly than they currently do.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And from political debate over Internet freedom, we go to a government that is expert at controlling the Internet. Internet censorship is the focus of controversy now in China which started when Beijing decided to require Internet filtering software on all new computers.

NPR's Louisa Lim is in Shanghai and following the story of the software called Green Dam Youth Escort, that's what it's called. Hi, Louisa.

LOUISA LIM: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: I suppose the surprise to me is that there actually would be controversy over Internet censorship in China since it would almost be something that's normal and expected.

LIM: Well, I mean this is a new sort of filtering software. And it really - the news emerged early this week that this new directive would mean all new computers would have to come with this software on it from July 1st which is just, you know, a couple of weeks away. And this software is supposed to protect young Internet users. But since then, all sorts of questions have been arising. I mean, everybody is desperate to find out what this software is and how it works.

And really, the more the people have found out, the more questions that it's brought up. So people are asking questions about the software itself, about the way the firm that got the government contract to provide the software apparently did so without competition. And about the cost, I mean the government says it's paying about $6 billion for the software for the first year alone.

INSKEEP: So who's complaining?

LIM: Well, where to start? Everybody is complaining. But I mean, a lot of the complaints are from users who are saying it simply doesn't work properly. A lot of schools have already had to install this software. And they say, it's very clunky, it keeps crashing, it slows down other programs. And it doesn't do what it's supposed to do, which is supposedly to filter out pornography.

We've had all sorts of strange examples, the math question with the word balls in it that was censored. Another teacher complained that a picture of a little piglet got banned. Also the comic book character Garfield the cat was apparently judged pornographic by the software.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LIM: Yet one of the teachers who tried the test - was looking at pictures of naked African women and said that this managed to get through the filter. So…

INSKEEP: Well, National Geographic also always made it through the filter in the United States. So, maybe that makes sense. Please, continue, continue.

LIM: But I mean there are other very serious issues. I mean apparently, discussions involving homosexuality will be banned, won't make it through the filter. So gay advocacy groups say this could shut down gay community Web sites in China. And although the government says that this software doesn't ban political words, those who examined it say they found that it blacklists terms like Falun Gong, which is a banned sect, June the 4th, Tiananmen Square, things like that. So there were all sorts of issues that are coming up.

INSKEEP: And just very briefly, is there any sign the government is going to back down?

LIM: Well, so far that doesn't seem to be the case. I mean, in today's Liberation Daily, there was an article saying that this software would help minors surf the Web in a healthy manner. And it said that 80 percent of primary and middle schools have already installed this software. We are seeing legal steps. A lawyer is demanding a public hearing to reconsider the government demand.

But despite all this opposition and opposition on trade grounds from computer makers in the U.S., it doesn't seem yet as if the government is ready to back down, which shows that despite all their moves to control the Internet, China's leaders still seem to fear the way in which it can empower ordinary citizens.

INSKEEP: Louisa, it's always a pleasure to talk with you.

LIM: Nice to talk to you too, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Louisa Lim in Shanghai.

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