In China, this photo may be porn

(Warning: This column may contain images and ideas not suitable for children or citizens of China.)

Examine, if you dare, the photograph at the top of this story.

It's right there for any man, woman or child to see: a naked couple cavorts, bare limbs draped seductively across the frame, their fleshy faces pressed together like a couple of animals. Clearly, this image is pornographic.

Or so says the Chinese government's latest attempt to regulate the internet.

If that sounds stupid, it's because it is. But by potentially treating these porcine pixels as "harmful material for the public," Beijing is straining under a self-imposed digital dilemma: how to promote the internet to boost economic growth and efficiency, while allowing the central government to maintain some degree of control over Chinese society.

If pigs are porn, then clearly the strategy still has some kinks. (More on that in a moment.)

This past week, the Chinese government issued a sweeping directive: Beginning July 1 every personal computer sold in the country must include new software that filters pornography and other content from the view of China's 300 million internet users.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Beijing aims to "construct a green, healthy and harmonious internet environment, and prevent harmful information on the internet from influencing and poisoning young people."

The software, called Green Dam/Youth Escort, is designed to keep web surfers from sites the government deems dangerous, adding one more brick to the Great Firewall of China.

Beijing already employs 30,000 people to police the web, who try to shape opinion by flooding popular sites with  positive comments about the Chinese Communist Party. It also routinely blocks sites that mention the spiritual movement Falun Gong, the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, the Dalai Lama and other sensitive topics. On the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen protests earlier this month, the government shut down Twitter, Flickr, YouTube and other popular social media sites.

But the coming imposition of Green Dam/Youth Escort has reportedly unnerved personal computer makers operating in China, such as Hewlett-Packard, Dell and Lenovo.

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