Yesterday, the U.S. Commerce Secretary and Trade Representative sent a letter to China’s government, objecting to China’s order, effective July 1, to require that all new PCs sold in China have preinstalled the Green Dam Youth Escort censorware program.
Here’s today’s New York Times:
Chinese officials have said that the filtering software, known as Green Dam-Youth Escort, is meant to block pornography and other “unhealthy information.”
In part, the American officials’ complaint framed this as a trade issue, objecting to the burden put on computer makers to install the software with little notice. But it also raised broader questions about whether the software would lead to more censorship of the Internet in China and restrict freedom of expression.
The Green Dam requirement puts U.S.-based PC companies, such as HP and Dell, in a tough spot: if they don’t comply they won’t be able to sell PCs in China; but if they do comply they will be censoring their customers’ Internet use and exposing customers to serious security risks.
There are at least two interesting new angles here. The first is the U.S. claim that China’s action violates free trade agreements. The U.S. has generally refrained from treating China’s Internet censorship as a trade issue, even though U.S. companies have often found themselves censored at times when competing Chinese companies were not. This unequal treatment, coupled with the Chinese government’s reported failure to define clearly which actions trigger censorship, looks like a trade barrier — but the U.S. hasn’t said much about it up to now.
The other interesting angle is the direct U.S. objection to censorship of political speech. For some time, the U.S. has tolerated China’s government blocking certain political speech in the network, via the “Great Firewall“. It’s not clear exactly how this objection is framed — the U.S. letter is not public — but news reports imply that political censorship itself, or possibly the requirement that U.S. companies participate in it, is a kind of improper trade barrier.
We’re heading toward an interesting showdown as the July 1 date approaches. Will U.S. companies ship machines with Green Dam? According to the New York Times, HP hasn’t decided, and Dell is dodging the question. The companies don’t want to lose access to the China market — but if U.S. companies participate so directly in political censorship, they would be setting a very bad precedent.