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In China, this photo may be porn

A ham-handed directive illustrates the depths of Beijing's digital dilemma.

And with good reason. More than 40 million PCs were sold in China last year, and demand is growing despite the global economic crisis. The country is an irresistable and critically important market for any computer maker.

The internet, of course, is also good for the Chinese economy, which has slowed in recent months amid the global economic meltdown. The web makes many business operations more efficient, from tightening supply chains to speeding orders and deliveries to improving communications.

So Beijing is caught between its need to promote economic growth, and its desire to retain political control over 1.3 billion people.

It's that last part that has privacy and free-speech advocates up in hooves. Most have roundly criticized Green Dam. "It's like downloading spyware onto your computer, but the government is the spy," Charles Mok, chairman of the Hong Kong chapter of the Internet Society told The New York Times.

Nor, apparently, does the software work very well. Computer experts say Green Dam is susceptible to hacking, crashes easily, runs only on computers that operate Microsoft Windows, and is ineffective when used with a Firefox browser.

Then there's the matter of the naked pigs.

To determine whether a photograph is "pornographic," the system reportedly is designed to identify the proportion of skin color. White, pink and fleshy, therefore, is blocked by the software. Sorry pigs. You look too much like porn.

But a photo of actual, naked African women? Not a problem, according to Chinese who have tried out the system.

To be sure, the Chinese government is likely to hammer out at least some of these problems with Green Dam/Youth Escort, as well with other future regulations. Ridicule is a powerful motivating force, and the internet isn't going away any time soon.

But until Beijing resolves this digital dilemma you can expect more ham-fisted hooey, and plenty of squealing, from all sides.

Recent columns by Thomas Mucha: 

The globalization of social media

The Great Recession of 2009

Reflections on the big, sick dog

A World of Trouble, the sequel