A Chinese developer of pornography filtering software protested reports linking the program to China's broader Internet censorship on Wednesday, after the government ordered that his software be distributed with all PCs sold in the country.
The government edict requiring PC makers to distribute the program touched off concerns that it could be used to block access to politically sensitive material online in addition to pornography.
But while the software, called Green Dam Youth Escort, could be changed through future updates, the downloaded version appears to work like Western programs such as Net Nanny that are targeted at parents and control access to certain Web sites.
Web sites usually banned in the country, such as those of Free Tibet and the Falun Gong spiritual movement, could still be accessed in China through a virtual private network with the porn filtering software running on Wednesday. Turning on the filter did block Web sites with pornographic images.
The program can be uninstalled and turned on or off after entering a password meant for parental control.
China has ordered the program to be included with new computers either pre-installed or on an enclosed CD starting July 1. The government will pay for the first year of use by users, after which they can renew their license with the designer, Jinhui Computer System Engineering.
China says the initiative is meant to protect children from "harmful" online content. The software blocks only illegal materials such as pornography and some content related to gambling and drugs, said Bryan Zhang, the general manager of Jinhui.
The program does not collect any information from users except what they volunteer if they register their copy, Zhang said.
The danger still exists that the program could be updated to block new content in the future, said Phelim Kine, an Asia researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch.
It could be difficult for Jinhui to resist any government pressure to modify the program, Kine said.
"This is obviously a company that has a proven track record of working with China's security forces," he said.
Users of the program are notified when updates are available for download. Jinhui has previously worked with a research institute under China's public security ministry on a blocking system for "harmful" online video clips, and has "long-term technical cooperation" with the army's Information Engineering University, according to its Web site.
When asked what Jinhui would do if ordered to make the program filter politically sensitive Web sites, Zhang said the government wouldn't need to use his software to block access to non-pornographic content.
"This is just commercial," Zhang said of his deal with the government.