Questions Hang at Deadline for China's Censorware

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Just one day before China expects PC makers to start shipping Internet filtering software with new computers, it was unclear if China would enforce the rule when that deadline comes.

China has ordered foreign and domestic PC makers to enclose the program with new machines by July 1. But controversies that have popped up around the software range from software piracy and a potential disruption of trade to free speech and user privacy. Those issues have gone unresolved as China has stayed mute on whether it will penalize PC makers that do not comply with the order.

"There are still so many question marks hanging around this," said Bryan Ma, an IDC analyst.

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 have 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 has not publicly responded. 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.

Green Dam does not appear to have shipped with most foreign PCs. Spokeswomen for Dell and Hewlett-Packard 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.

What will happen on China's deadline remains unclear, but PC makers will need time to handle logistics and distribution if China does enforce the mandate, said Ma, the analyst.

China could also scrap or postpone the rule, Ma said. Barring sales of foreign PCs could disrupt China's market. HP and Dell were China's second- and third-largest PC vendors in the final quarter last year, according to IDC.

Calls to China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, which issued the mandate, went unanswered on Tuesday. Calls to the main developer of Green Dam, Jinhui Computer System Engineering, also went unanswered.

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