MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
China has ordered that all new computers sold in that country must include sophisticated filtering software. The new regulations were released in an unusual way. They were posted first on a Chinese government Web site. They were first reported in the U.S. in the Wall Street Journal. The new rules go into effect July 1st, and mandate that all computers in China must have software that would filter out a list of Web sites banned by the government. Jonathan Zittrain is a professor at Harvard Law School and co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. He's also a principle investigator for OpenNet Initiative, a group that analyzes Internet filtering around the world. Professor Zittrain joins us now. Welcome to the program.
P: Thanks so much.
NORRIS: Why is China doing this? Why now and what are they asking computer companies to do?
P: Well, we can only guess at their motivations but the government has certainly had interest, for at least eight to 10 years, in controlling the flow of information on the Internet. And from what I can tell this may be a sort of belt and suspenders approach coupling the existing filtering of Internet connections with PC software that actually runs on the computer of the sort that you might find in an American library for kids. That kind of software is now being mandated to be on every new machine sold or imported into China.
NORRIS: And if it's mandated to be on every new machine, it's an unusual way to make that kind of announcement, isn't it, to put it on a Web site?
P: Well it is. In fact the existing filtering that we've seen is something that usually the government denies exists. More recently, some spokespeople will say, well, we have a right to create a harmonious Internet environment. And that's the kind of language we see in this announcement as well as the justification.
NORRIS: Professor, what kinds of things are China trying to ban?
P: One base is pornography. And at least some implementations of the software include blocking of politically, socially sensitive sites, not just pornographic sites.
NORRIS: Now July 1st is just over a month away. Is it possible that the computer companies are going to be able to make that deadline?
P: There might well be some logistical difficulties in doing it. And there's really an uproar over this, not just I think from the manufacturers but from the users themselves. This is pretty serious software. It goes pretty deep into the depths of a Windows machine. And it may not work so well.
NORRIS: Do companies generally march to China's tune when they ask for specific things?
P: Well, within China certainly. They have ways of dragging their feet or pushing back. It is not monolithic. And again, some of the early evidence we've seen, now that this order has been made public, are that companies are not that pleased about it and might drag their feet on compliance or just comply to the minimum extent that they have to, with a lot of support to the user, maybe even about, you know, how to disable the software. But for companies outside of China that are worried about being tossed out or having an engineer arrested or anything else, it's one of those uncertainties that can keep you up at night.
NORRIS: Now the loudest protests so far have come from human rights activists. What are they specifically worried about?
P: Well, I think they're concerned that this is another turn of the screw in an attempt by the government to prevent people from seeing information that is true but inconvenient to the government. And more important I think, once you're talking about software that gets installed on someone's machine, that software has the keys to the kingdom. It can look in any file. It can read your spreadsheets, your Word documents, track everything going on in the machine. And at that point you have a surveillance tool that far exceeds what you could do if you were just holding a stethoscope to that person's Internet connection. You're kind of inside their machine at that point.
NORRIS: Professor Zittrain, thank you very much.
P: Thank you very much.
NORRIS: That's Jonathan Zittrain. He's a professor of law at Harvard Law School. He's also the co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society.