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Think Twice Before Buying a Computer in China

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The Chinese government is infamous for controlling the information Chinese citizens have access to. The country uses several methods (including firewalls and proxy servers) to restrict access to various Web sites that criticize Communism or promote the causes of groups like the Falun Gong. Officially, these methods are part of the Golden Shield Project. But we know it better as “the Great Firewall of China.” And while restrictions are tight, a person with the right software and technical know-how can get around many of the obstacles.

Earlier this month, word spread that the Chinese government would require PC manufacturers to install the Green Dam-Youth Escort software before selling the machines to the public. The censorship software will block access to certain Web sites. The Chinese government claims that the purpose of the software is to censor pornography. But some people worry that it will do much more than that, making it even more difficult for Chinese citizens to access information from sources other than Chinese Web sites. In effect, this software could close the loopholes in the Great Firewall.

To make matters worse, computer security experts identified weaknesses in the Green Dam-Youth Escort software. They discovered the software made PCs vulnerable to an attack from hackers. It would be possible for a hacker to create a massive zombie computer army by using these vulnerabilities as a backdoor entry.

Yesterday, Alexa Olesen of the Associated Press reported that an unnamed Chinese official told the China Daily Newspaper that the program wasn’t compulsory — manufacturers could apparently opt out of it without penalty. According to the report, the backlash to China’s plan caused officials to reevaluate their strategy — the software would be packaged with the PC on CD or exist only as a set-up file. Several news agencies and blogs spread the story. But today, an article in The New York Times written by Edward Wong and Ashlee Vance says that these reports are in error. According to their investigation, American computer manufacturers havent been told that the program is optional. In fact, the directive they have received from China states that not only must the software be stored on the hard drive, it must also be on back-up files so that if the computer crashes, the software will remain on the PC.

Will China back down? It would surprise me if the government acquiesces to public demand. The Chinese government is known for a lot of things, but bowing to the will of the people is not necessarily one of them. Another good question to ask is will American computer companies comply with China’s demands and install this software? Can they afford not to?

Learn more about censorship and the Internet at HowStuffWorks.com — before you no longer have the option:

How Internet Censorship Works
How Firewalls Work
How Zombie Computers Work
How Propaganda Works

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