June 9, 2009

Information Sickness Breaks Out in China

BEIJING — China has issued a sweeping directive requiring all personal computers sold in the country to include sophisticated software that can immunize personal computers against pornography and other “unhealthy information” from the Internet. Outbreaks have previously been reported in Macao and Hong Kong, whose cosmopolitan populations and social permeability make them highly vulnerable to infection, but today's news release says nothing about these locations. Information sickness is highly contagious and the newest Asian strain H2V2 is a combination of avian and swine DNA. Some epidemiologists are puzzled by this species jump and suspicions have been voiced that the latest outbreaks were engineered in Western newsrooms or laboratories in the San Fernando Valley where most pornographic infections are believed to originate. Other investigators point out that there is a difference between pornography and politics and that the freedoms involved in each bear little relation to one another. However, the Beijing government is requiring license in either case.

The software, which manufacturers must install on all new PCs sold in China starting July 1, would allow the government to regularly update computers with an ever-changing list of infected Web sites. Also, newly purchased PCs are supplied with face masks and blinkers for the users, as well as free condoms in some cases. (This has led to an upsurge in "nurse" porn sites that show nude healthy Chinese women practicing safe sex, wearing face masks and nurse caps.)

The rules, issued last month, ratchet up Internet quarantines that are already among the most stringent in the world. Software arriving in China from elsewhere in the world where information intoxication is rife is immediately sequestered and detoxed. China regularly blocks Web sites that discuss the Dalai Lama, the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters, and the Falun Gong, the banned spiritual movement, as well as such illnesses as the market in Thailand for underage sex slaves, primarily preteen girls, who are known to be carriers of a particularly infectious strain of information sickness leading to priapism and extended fits of hysterical laughter.

But freedom of information (OWNRISK) advocates say they fear the new software could make it even more difficult for China’s 300 million Internet users to obtain sick news and other contaminated information. In epidemiological circles there is bitter controversy about how to limit exposure, since quarantine practices often involve violations of human rights or speech freedom.

“This is a very bad thing,” said Charles S. Mok Duk, chairman of the Hong Kong chapter of OWNRISK, an international advisory group on free software downloads from the Internet. “Information wants to be free. If it makes you sick, that's a person's individual rights at stake. It’s like downloading spyware onto your computer, but the government is the spy.” The Chinese government denies this charge, saying the software cleanses the system, then blocks out unwanted infectious agents. In addition it offers guidance on how to lose over 40 lbs in one month eating Acai berry-laced protein-deprived Chinese food, required in Chinese families that have more than one child.

Called Clean Dam — a reference to slogans that describe a smut-free Internet as “clean” — the software is designed to filter out sexually explicit images, particularly of healthy, normal nude Chinese women and prepubescent Thai girls, and unhealthy or contaminating words, such as "Thai girls for sale," according to the company that designed it. Computer experts, however, warn that once installed, the software could be directed to block all manner of content or allow the government to monitor Internet use and collect personal information about pornography use and frequency. The government maintains that there is no other way to control the spread of the disease.

Details of the new regulations, which were posted Monday on a government Web site, were first reported by The Great Wall Journal, renamed from the Wall Street Journal since the world's financial centers moved from Wall Street to China.

“I would advise dissidents to buy computers before July 1, and sequester them,” said Clothilde Le Cooz, head of the Internet freedom desk of Reporters Without Boundaries or Functioning Immune Systems.

A group of industry representatives met with American officials Monday to express their displeasure with the new rules, said Susan N. Stevenson, a spokeswoman for the United States Embassy in Beijing. “We view any attempt to restrict the free flow of information with great concern,” she said.

Zhang Gingong, general manager of Nihao Computer System Engineering, a company that helped create Clean Dam, said worries that the software could be used to censor a broad range of disease agents or potentially unhealthy Internet use were overblown. He insisted that the software, which attacks and disinfects programs designed to override China’s so-called Great Firewall, could simply be deleted or temporarily turned off by the user. “A patient can still use this computer to go to porn,” he said. "It's okay for people who use protection," he added, citing a government-sponsored condom distribution program. They will just have to let the government know.

Industry experts and civil libertarians say they are worried the software may simply be a Trojan horse for more extensive Internet quarantine. The software developers have ties to China’s military and public security agencies, they point out, and Clean Dam’s backers say the effort is supported by China's chief propaganda official, a member of the decision-making body of the Communist Party, the Politburo Lying Committee.

The software will be provided free, paid for by the government, and according to the official Clean Dam Web site, it has already been downloaded 3.2 million times from porn sites in just one city in Sichuan. That figure includes thousands of schools that were required to install the software by the end of May, particularly schools where there are prepubescent uninfected girls who might want to sell themselves to the western sex slave market if they get a chance.

In recent months China has tightened its Internet restrictions, including an “antivulgarity” campaign that has closed down thousands of pornographic sites but also nonsexual sites, including some of the most popular bulletin boards and blog hosts. China already employs more than 30,000 censors and thousands who “guide public opinion” by flooding bulletin boards with comments favorable to the Clean Party. Old cadres, long unemployed, are now disease control specialists.

Even beyond medical concerns, those who have tested the new software describe it as technically flawed. An American software engineer said it led machines to crash frequently because it creates an autoimmune response that seems to attack healthy information in expanding cascades (the boot sector is vulnerable to replacement by this infection). Others worry that it could leave tens of millions of computers vulnerable to hecklers. So far, at least, there is no version for the Linux operating system orfor Apple’s Macintosh system, which are not widely availlable in China because they are considered intrinsically infected and pathological.

The directive makes no mention of the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macao, but one industry association executive said companies had been told that these areas are exempt from the new rules. These areas are widely believed to be beyond redemption.

On Monday, Clean Dam’s own Web site offered a hint of discontent over the disinfectant (C-D) software. On the bulletin board section of the site, one writer described it as a “Web white devil” and several users complained that pornographic images slipped through depicting nude, healthy Chinese women in face masks having simulated intercourse with condom-clad western actors, or that their computers had become painfully slow, making the simulation of sex acs even less convincing. “It seems pretty lousy so far,” one posting said. “It’s not very powerful; I can’t surf the Internet normally and it’s affecting the operation of other software. Anal sex is really poor quality.”

By Monday night, however, most such comments had been deleted.

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