Well, that was that. Short weeks after the news broke that China would require censoring software, known as the Green Dam-Youth Escort, to be installed on every computer sold in China, the government has backed down. After online criticism, and reports of the software’s flaws, the MIIT has said Green Dam will now be provided with every computer, though its installation will be optional. An AP story said this development represents a small victory for anti-censorship forces in China. If so, it is small indeed. More interesting is the ways in which the rollout (if we can call it that) of this policy was bungled from the start, revealing a half-baked plan to foist faulty software on the public.
I should make clear from the outset that neither I nor any of my brave comrades at China Economic Review are advocating censorship, which is what’s really at the heart of this story. Despite government claims that Green Dam was meant to weed out pornography and violence, it’s fair to assume that other so-called “sensitive” information would have been blocked by the software, and that this was by design and not just a happy accident. That said, if the goverment had truly wanted to make Green Dam a success, they could have gone about it in a savvier way.
First and foremost, the MIIT should have brought PC makers into the fold from the start. Notable in some of the the initial reporting of Green Dam were off-the-record comments from PC makers who said the government had not consulted them prior to making the decision. Had the government reached out to PC makers early on, they could have worked together to iron out the technological issues and also presented a united front in a coordinated announcement. Sure it would have delayed the process, but at least the government would have been saving face instead of wiping egg off of it. And to anyone who doubts that the likes of Dell or HP would have fallen in line with the government in exchange for continued access to the China market amidst a global economic crisis: I find your trusting ways both refreshing and cute.
A public relations campaign replete with examples of the grossest internet violence, or for example, with statistics on how viewing such violence affects children, could have also helped make the government’s case. Dare we say a focus group or two might have helped shape the message in a more palatable way?
Oh, and having a software that actually works, and is free of allegations of IP theft, would have been nice.
Would all of this have saved the MIIT from being savaged by netizens or rights groups? Probably not. And maybe they did have a master strategy for the rollout which was then thwarted by our pals at the Wall Street Journal who broke the story. We’ll never know, and frankly, we should be glad the government botched this one.