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Computer makers and researchers are seeking answers to questions about Internet filtering software that the Chinese government is requiring PC manufacturers to ship with computers sold in the country beginning next month.

The software -- dubbed 'Green Dam-Youth Escort' -- could give government censors additional control over the information that Chinese Internet users see online.

Though the company that makes Green Dam, China-based Jinhui Computer System Engineering Co., has said it is designed to let parents block access to Web content inappropriate for children, Internet freedom advocates have questioned whether it could be used to block politically sensitive sites, given China's history of censoring Web content.

The software works similarly to models long used by companies that sell security and parental-control software. Such programs come with a 'black list' of Web sites that have previously been categorized as pornographic, violent, or containing hate speech, as well as words or combinations of words that appear on such sites. Each time a user tries to visit a Web site the address is checked against the list. When a Web site is blocked, a message will appear saying it contains prohibited content.

Jinhui founder Bryan Zhang says the company compiles the list of sites to be blocked, which he says is limited to pornography. The software also could be used to block other types of content and collect private data -- but he says the company had no reason to do so.

Seth Young, spokesman for the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard, said initial testing indicated that the system only blocked pornography and not politically sensitive Web sites. However, he cautioned that the list of blocked sites could be changed in the future.

Such software is usually programmed to receive updates via the Web to the black list at regular intervals. The computer owner doesn't need to do anything to load these updates, which are delivered directly from the software publisher to the computer.

An important question for computer manufacturers -- facing a July 1 deadline to comply with the order -- is whether installation of the software is mandatory. The order from China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology mandating the software left vague whether it had to be pre-installed on a computer or simply distributed on a CD with the computer.

The agency also didn't specify what penalty companies might face if they don't comply.

It also remains unclear whether the software can be turned off, or circumvented. Mr. Zhang said the software could be uninstalled, but requires a password to do so in order to make it difficult for children to uninstall it themselves. He also said blocked sites can be accessed either with a password set by the software's administrator, or by adding addresses to a 'white list' of allowed sites. Similarly, addresses can be added to the black list on the user's hard drive.

The two largest U.S. PC makers, Hewlett-Packard Co., and Dell Inc., said they were evaluating the software. A spokesman for Dell said the company is still 'working to understand the application.'

Last year, researchers discovered that a Chinese version of eBay Inc.'s Skype Internet calling software contained the ability to block politically sensitive words in instant messaging chats, and to keep a record of the use of such words.

Geoffrey A. Fowler / Ben Worthen


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