China delays Net filtering mandate for PC makers

China postponed its requirement for PC makers to ship Internet filtering software with new computers late Tuesday, just hours before the deadline it previously set.

China made the decision in response to PC maker concerns that shipping the software with all machines would take more time, the official Xinhua news agency said, citing China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT).

The report did not set a new deadline, but said the MIIT would “keep on soliciting opinions to perfect the pre-installation plan.”

But on Thursday, state media announced China has not lifted its requirement that an Internet filtering program be shipped with all computers sold in the country, even though the plan was postponed this week.

It is just “a matter of time” before the mandate for PC makers to ship the program takes effect, the website of the official newspaper China Daily cited an unnamed official as saying Thursday.

China says the program, called Green Dam Youth Escort, is meant to protect children from “harmful” information online. The program blocks pornography and other content, including some related to politically sensitive issues such as criticisms of a former president. Sites are also blocked if they reference Falun Gong, the spiritual movement banned as a cult in China.

A Canadian Internet research group believes the Chinese filterware is far more intrusive than Chinese authorities claim.

China will still continue placing the software on PCs in Internet cafes and public schools across the country, the Xinhua report said.

China had previously ordered foreign and domestic PC makers to include the filtering program pre-installed or on a CD-ROM with new machines by July 1. But controversy quickly grew around the software, ranging from software piracy and a potential disruption of trade to free speech and user privacy.

China has muzzled Internet and social network access by its citizens in recent months and two weeks ago was reported to have blocked Google.

Those issues had gone unresolved as China stayed mute on whether it would extend the deadline or penalize PC makers that did not comply with the order.

“There are still so many question marks hanging around this,” Bryan Ma, an IDC analyst, said in an interview before the announcement.

China says it mandated the software, called Green Dam Youth Escort, to protect children from “harmful” information on the Internet. The filter can be uninstalled and mainly blocks pornography, but it also blocks political content including Web sites that mention Falun Gong, the spiritual movement banned as a cult in China.

Trade associations, rights groups and U.S. government offices all protested the mandate. A group of 22 trade associations from the U.S., Europe and Japan last week sent a letter to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao urging reconsideration of the rule. That followed similar calls from the U.S. government, including in a letter sent to Chinese officials by U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk.

China had not publicly responded before Tuesday. State media last week cited an official saying the deadline had not changed, but it cited another saying foreign PC makers including Dell would probably not meet the deadline.

Few foreign PCs appear to have shipped in China with Green Dam. Spokeswomen for Dell and Hewlett-Packard reached before Tuesday’s announcement declined to add to past comments on whether the companies would ship the software. Dell last week said it was still reviewing the regulation, while HP said it was seeking additional information.

One computer sales employee at Gome, a Chinese electronics retailer, said he had never heard of Green Dam when asked if it was included with any of the store’s PCs.

Sony is one foreign company that may have started distributing Green Dam with PCs.

A picture posted via Twitter last week shows what the uploader says is a disclaimer regarding Green Dam included with a new Sony Vaio computer.

The disclaimer says Sony is distributing the software in accordance with government regulations, but that it cannot guarantee the program’s legality or security, highlighting some main concerns raised by critics. Researchers at the University of Michigan revealed a vulnerability in the software’s code that an appropriately designed URL could use to take control of a user’s PC.

Sony did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Protests have also flown from Solid Oak Software, a California-based company that says Green Dam stole from its programming code. Solid Oak says it has found proprietary files in Green Dam copied from the company’s own Web content control product, CyberSitter.

Solid Oak this month sent cease-and-desist letters to U.S.-based PC makers ordering that they not ship Green Dam in China, and has said it would consider seeking a court injunction to halt the software’s distribution if necessary.

“Our concerns will not be changed until we know that Green Dam has been stopped completely,” Solid Oak spokeswoman Jenna DiPasquale said in an e-mail.

Calls to China’s MIIT went unanswered on Tuesday. Calls to the main developer of Green Dam, Jinhui Computer System Engineering, also went unanswered.

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