BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s ambitions to strengthen control of the Internet with filtering software became a show of the limits of its power on Wednesday, as activists and industry groups welcomed an abrupt delay of the contentious plan.
The surprise climbdown was reported late on Tuesday by Xinhua news agency, which said the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology would “delay the mandatory installation of the controversial ‘Green Dam-Youth Escort’ filtering software on new computers.
Officials said the software was intended to stamp out Internet pornography, and computer companies had originally been told that from Wednesday they had to bundle “Green Dam” with any personal computers heading to stores for sale in the country.
But the order was assailed by opponents of censorship, industry groups and Washington officials as rash, politically intrusive, technically ineffective and commercially unfair. PC companies have mostly avoided making firm public statements on the issue.
“This shows that social pressure can’t be ignored,” said Zhou Ze, a Beijing lawyer who challenged the legality of the plan.
“They tried to control public opinion to back the plan by creating a fuss about pornography, but that failed, and they will have learnt to be more careful next time.”
The decision was the latest turn in a see-saw battle between the ruling Communist Party, wary of the Internet as a conduit of political dissent and objectionable values, and social and commercial forces pressing to use the Internet as a channel for more unfettered expression.
Google has also been caught in recent controversy over censorship, and the stakes for citizens and companies can be high.
China has about 300 million Internet users. About 42.6 million personal computers will be sold across the country this year, according to the data research firm Gartner.
The country’s largest PC brand is homegrown Lenovo, though global players such as HP, Dell and Acer have made considerable headway in the market in recent years.
Internet professionals and activists were divided over whether the plan will drift into oblivion after the indefinite delay. Controversial past efforts to further control Internet blogs and bulletin boards have died quiet deaths without being officially revoked.
Chinese Internet enthusiasts crowded an art center on the outskirts of Beijing on Wednesday to celebrate the last-minute halt to the filtering plan, and demand freedom of expression in the one-party state. Many wore t-shirts mocking Green Dam.
“It has not been canceled, just put back, so it’s possible that after a certain amount of time it will be pushed back out,” said Liu Xiaoyuan, one of the party-goers.
In a statement on its website (www.miit.gov.cn), the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology rejected claims that the filter plan threatened free speech, violated international trade rules or was chosen without proper tender processes. It said use of the software was optional.
But Ed Black, president of the Washington-based Computer and Communications Industry Association, said the backdown showed that the U.S. government still has some sway in Beijing.
“This shows that when U.S. trade officials get involved, they get results,” Black said in a statement sent by email.
“Internet censorship is a widespread problem, and for too long, companies have been left on their own to negotiate with other countries,” he said.
Computer companies have been coy about directly criticizing the plan, perhaps reflecting their big stake in China’s market, and they remained so on Wednesday.
Taiwan-based Acer, the world’s third-largest personal computer maker, said it would seek clarification from the Chinese government and would meet any new deadline.
“There’re differing opinions on the policy, but we’re just a PC seller, and we don’t make the rules,” said Acer spokesman Henry Wang.
Chen Yongmiao, a Beijing-based rights activist who has campaigned against Green Dam, said the government’s reversal would make it more cautious in enforcing Internet controls.
“This will embolden Internet users,” said Chen. “They have become more confident and more united thanks to the fight against Green Dam.”
Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard, Emma Graham-Harrison and Yu Le in Beijing and Kelvin Soh in Taipei; Editing by Sugita Katyal