The Obama administration has lodged a formal protest with the Chinese government over its plan to require that all computers sold in China after July 1 come with software that blocks access to certain Internet websites. U.S. officials say the software, ostensibly designed to protect children from Internet pornography, has broader censorship capability.
U.S. officials say that while the stated aim of the Chinese plan is commendable, the software being mandated for computers in China raises censorship and security issues, and they are urging Beijing to delay the July 1 mandate to allow for more talks on the issue.
China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology informed manufacturers in May of the pending requirement that all computers sold in China after the deadline would have to be equipped with Chinese web-filtering software known as Green Dam.
American computer experts and high-tech companies have complained to the U.S. government that the software, nominally intend to block Internet pornography, also contains censoring script that screens out websites with political content objectionable to China, or causes computers accessing them to malfunction.
They also have warned that the Green Dam software might have security and computer virus vulnerabilities.
Earlier this month, the State Department said that U.S. officials had raised the matter with China in diplomatic contacts. On Wednesday, the United States complained formally - in letters by U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke to their Chinese counterparts.
At a news briefing Thursday, State Department Spokesman Ian Kelly said the software mandate can have a "real impact" on the free flow of information.
"This has raised international concern," said Ian Kelly. "It's not just a matter for the State Department. The State Department shares the concerns raised by international technology companies and by Chinese citizens regarding the potential impact of this software on trade, and the free flow of information. And we think there are also some serious technical issues raised by the software."
Officials here say computer companies have told the Obama administration that they are reluctant to comply with the Chinese rule and be complicit in political censorship.
Commerce Secretary Locke said China is putting companies in an "untenable" position by requiring them, with virtually no public notice, to install software that he said "appears to have broad-based censorship and network security issues."
Trade Representative Kirk has said the mandate might violate World Trade Organization rules against trade barriers and suggested that the United States might file a formal complaint with the WTO.
Japan has also expressed concern to the Chinese government.
China already maintains an elaborate national Internet filtering system, widely known as "the Great Firewall," that blocks access to websites that discuss sensitive topics such as Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and the Falun Gong spiritual movement.