A Simple Solution

This “Green Dam-Youth Escort” filtering software issues continues to get more interesting in highlighting the complexities of the Chinese political system today.  On the one hand, senior levels of the Chinese government continue to press their support for the new regulation and propaganda officials reportedly have ordered that criticism of the new regulation in the media be stifled.

At the same time, opposition in China continues to grow and is widely aired on the internet (sort of ironic, no?).  One of the most interesting developments is the potential use of China’s new Anti-monopoly Law (AML) to attack the new regulation as an administrative abuse of power.  Here’s a description of the issue from the WSJ (subscription required; full article here:  http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124482083845410171.html):

“Zhou Ze, a political science professor at China Youth University, said he and a professor from Hong Kong have submitted formal complaints to China’s State Council and the National Anti-Monopoly Committee saying the requirement is an “abuse of power.”

They argue that it is anti-competitive because it will flood the market with software produced by two companies selected by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology in a non-transparent way.”

Ok, so in 1979 China begins its policy of reform and opening.  Years later as a part of that process China enacts the AML, to deal with the issue of monopolies in the economy, an important issue all market-based economies must deal with.  And today it is being cited to attack the non-competitive way this filtering software was chosen for monopoly status by the Chinese government.  And who says that economic reforms don’t bleed over into reform of the political system?

To make matters worse, there now seems to be some evidence that the Green Dam software is based in part on pirated computer code from a US company (full AP article via Physorg.com:  http://www.physorg.com/news164103095.html):

“Solid Oak Software of Santa Barbara said Friday that parts of its filtering software, which is designed for parents, are being used in the “Green Dam-Youth Escort” filtering software that must be packaged with all computers sold in China from July 1.

Solid Oak’s founder, Brian Milburn, said he plans to seek an injunction against the Chinese developer that built the software, but acknowledged that it’s new legal terrain for his company…

A report released Thursday by University of Michigan researchers who examined the Chinese software supports Solid Oak’s claim that the Green Dam software contains pirated code. The report also found serious security vulnerabilities that could allow hackers to hijack PCs running the Chinese software.

The report found that a number of the “blacklist” files that Green Dam employs were taken from Solid Oak’s CyberSitter program.

The report’s authors – researchers in the university’s computer science and engineering division – also said they found another clue that Solid Oak’s code was stolen: a file that contained a 2004 CyberSitter news bulletin that appeared to have been accidentally included in Green Dam’s coding.”

All in all this is turning into a larger and larger embarrassment for the folks who promulgated this regulation and for China’s government more broadly.

And here’s a pop quiz:  what one simple step could Chinese regulators have taken to avoid all this embarrassment?

Answer:  Publication of the draft regulation with an adequate period of time for public comment.

In fact, I believe that prior publication and public comment on this kind of regulation would fall under China’s commitment to this mechanism as a part of its WTO accession.  In any event, I think it would be clearly required under guidelines that have been issued (more than once), though never effectively enforced, by China’s State Council.

Just think about it:  had this regulation been published as a draft with a 60 or 90 period for public comment, all of the concerns of Chinese citizens and foreign companies would have been aired.  Chinese companies with competing products could have made their case for a competitive selection process and software experts inside and outside China could have reviewed the Green Dam software to assess its effectiveness and expose any use of software piracy it contains.  Then regulators could have assessed whether changes were needed in the regulation in an orderly, non-embarrassing way.

Instead, the folks who rammed this sweetheart deal through the Chinese system in secrecy have put senior Chinese leaders in an awkward position, domestically and internationally.

It is true that China has ramped up its public support for the new regulation in response to the increasing criticism it has generated.  But I stand by my predict (see my previous post) that ultimately this regulation will be withdrawn or allowed to wither away unimplemented, though it may take six months to a year for that to happen.

In addition, I have some hope that this debacle will reinforce the voices of those within China who have argued strenuously for more transparency in government rulemaking, including a strict commitment to prior notice and public comment for new regulations.

And when China’s most senior leaders get together and talk about the Green Dam issue, I hope they realize that it was this pro-transparency group, not the unhealthy alliance of Chinese IT companies in bed with their Ministry supporters, who had the interests of China foremost in mind.

Explore posts in the same categories: China, Economy, Internet/Media, Technology

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