Jun 19

China Needs to Bridge its Digital Divide, One Official at a Time

Written by berlinf on Friday, June 19th, 2009 at 8:58 pm
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Recent events in China suggest that a bunch of technological laggards are trying to play in a field they do not know much about. This ignorance causes increasing social tensions between the government and the netizens, in most cases unnecessarily. In the past month, the government has blocked sites such as blogger and twitter, and then they require the use of filtering software Green Dam, and in the most recent developments, CCTV reported on Google as spreading pornographic information, and the government conveniently suspended its Chinese operations.

Most of such actions were performed by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology which actually sent out a direct mandate requiring the pre-installation of Green Dam filtering software on personal computers. This mandate appears in what is often called “Red-Letterheaded Directive” (红头文件), which are frequently used by higher-level government agencies to require lower-level agencies to perform certain actions. Yet you do not implement technological innovations this way, even if Green Dam could be called an innovation. In addition, the Internet has changed the rule of game so much that such mandates can no longer work as effectively as it would in many other areas where the government is comfortable with. The pre-installation requirement has met with fierce opposition from Internet users as well as some traditionally official media such as Chinese Youth Daily, which has probably had enough of censoring itself.

Filtering content potentially harmful to minors is often necessary, and it is being practiced in opener societies such as the US and Australia. Why would such policies backfire in China specifically? The main reason is that the dubious ways of the Ministry defeat even the ministry’s declared intention when the game happens in a field that respects openness and transparency. This is rather typical of Chinese government officials who do not seem to understand how information actually flows and how frustration and hostility can build up if such flows get interrupted. Nor could they successfully use the neutral tool of the Internet in their own defense as President Obama would do in his skilled use of Youtube and other web sites to advocate his agenda.

What China is doing right now is to fund a defective product (Green Dam is reported to have security loopholes), pushing it to users through a problematic channels (government mandate), without involving any stakeholders and without balancing it with alternative messages, methods or medium. What a perfect recipe for disaster! Just as the name suggests, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (strange bedfellows at best), cannot actually implement industrial principles of command and control to information technology without balancing these principles with a spirit of support and nurturing. In the case of Green Dam, one major missing piece is the availability of content that children can safely access or acceptably use. Chinese children needs the likes of pbskids.org or Seussiville, sites that they can go to for help. If there are such sites that children can safely browse, there would have been much less opposition to the use of filtering. As in parenting, you cannot just control without providing support. That leads mostly to alienation and anger.

It is possible that the government knows how to play the rules of the Internet, but it just chooses to make exceptions for itself due to its own hidden agenda. That would cuts deep into its credibility. The lack of transparency has led to much suspicion about corruption, invasion of privacy and security concerns in the Green Dam case. By the time the public become mostly sour and suspicious about such softwares, China has lost the opportunity to reasonably and legally censor really harmful pornographic content for minors. An opportunity is lost for government to appear before the public as an authoritative rather than authoritarian player in the way it deals with the Internet and its users.

A huge digital divide looms between government officials who act like bulls in a china shop and netizens who are increasingly shrewd in figuring things out in spite of blocking and banning. Much of the recent controversy centers around the software. But to my understanding, what China needs most is not a better web filter. It needs a CTO.

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34 Responses to “China Needs to Bridge its Digital Divide, One Official at a Time”

  1. Charles Liu Says:

    Um, berlinf, “require the use of filtering software Green Dam” is not true – the end user was never required to run, or even install Green Dam.

    Please see the discussion in Steve’s blogpost about Green Dam. But I do agree with you that this Green Dam thing, thou well intended, was not effectively communicated with the proper expectation set.

  2. pug_ster Says:

    Seriously, berlinf. While I agree that Green Dam software did not exactly passed QA, it tries to address the issue of trying to protect their children of malicious stuff from the internet. Also, there is little market for homegrown Chinese filtering software because people would just pirate it. The criticism of this Green Dam Software is well deserved so it will make China to go back to the drawing board to make a better product.

  3. raventhorn4000 Says:

    Please, “defective product”.

    I need my $200 back for my vista, where is a f*ing outrage from the media?

  4. Berlin Says:

    I am a parent. I am all for protecting children against malicious content. But the end does not justify the means. The government still has to follow proper channels even if it wants to accomplish something as good as protecting children. There is so much censoring going on that you cannot blame the public for their suspections and bitterness. In the end, the government just messed up an opportunity to bring something useful to the public. It’s stupid, regretable and unnecessary. They could have learned something from the lessons of the US in implementing the Children’s Internet Protection Act that was passed as early as 2000.

  5. Shane9219 Says:

    At minimal level, a forceful crack-down on well-known sites like Craigslist and Google etc are necessary. They need to meet social responsibilities once they become a common destination for public. However, it is always hard to regulate activities at the edge of society. Thinking about current wall-street’s financial trouble, there is no need to see another big social problem from these “cutting-edge” internet products.

  6. raventhorn4000 Says:

    I don’t think the CIPA was very intrusive at all, and US Supreme Court upheld it in 2003.

    But hey, I don’t see much outrage over CIPA in US right now.

  7. raventhorn4000 Says:

    Craiglist, yes, crackdown. I tried to sell my furnitures on that site and had so many spams came back it was ridiculous. I can see why a serial rapist murderer would use that site to prey on women.

    Google, no comment. A friend of mine helped to build that site, so I’m biased.

  8. Shane9219 Says:

    From reports, Craigslist tried imaging filtering and was not successful. The site is now forced by various state AGs’ to use real human beings to do the work.

  9. Charles Liu Says:

    Berlin, there’s no censorship issue. The end users are not required to install or run the software. Even if they do run it, the filters are completely configurable. It also does not call mothership like some reporters have invented:

    “工信部:上网过滤软件不监控网民 不强制安装” – MIIB: Online Filtering Sowftware Will Not Monitor Citizen, Will Not Force Installation

    How did a handful of bloggers and NYT mange to twist this into a government censorship issue is beyond me. The only conclusion I can come up with is anti-sinoism. Worse, the Chinese government played right into their hands.

    Again, the Chinese citizens getting all hot and bothered before checking facts, on or off line, as we’ve seen before, is something the Chinese government should have anticipated and managed better.

  10. zhwj Says:

    Charles Liu, that headline is misleading. In the article, “not force installation” is sourced to the software’s customer service center, not MIIT, and it is in the context of a statement acknowledging that users are “free to close or uninstall the software,” which a reader could justifiably understand to mean that it arrives already operational.

    It’s true that users aren’t required to run the software, but that’s really all that can be said with certainty right now. Some people have said it’s up to the user to choose to install or not, others with equal authority have said that they can choose to uninstall if they so desire. The Ministry has not clarified, behavior that’s not unexpected but not particularly helpful in this situation.

  11. pug_ster Says:

    Every month someone Microsoft releases software patches and fixes for vulnerabilities and we have gotten used to it. Maybe the Green Dam software has to do the same.

  12. Charles Liu Says:

    zhwj, government official have also said installation is optional: 1) the mandate to bundle is for the setup only (on hard drive or CD) per original MIIT announcement date 5/19.

    Page 2 paragraph 2) made no sense if read “preinstall” not “bundle”.

  13. Charles Liu Says:

    zhwj @ 10, “not MIIT”

    Just because western media and bloggers choose not to cover the follow up explination does not mean there wasn’t any. If you search on baidu with keywords “green dam bundle install site:gov.cn”, you’ll see there are plenty of follow up on official channels. Take this article from 6/10 for example:


    绿坝预装只提供安装文件 用户可决定是否安装 – Green Dam “bundle/preinstall” only provide installation articles, end users decide install or not

    工信部要求预装进电脑的只是一个软件安装文件,所以用户可以选择是否把它装进自己的电脑里让他运行 – MIIB asks “bundle/preinstall” on computer is only the installation, so end users can choose wheither to execute it to install on their own computer

    How can there be government censorship when end users are not required to install or run this software?

  14. zhwj Says:

    The presence of a Sina Tech report on the Henan Industrial Standards website is not entirely conclusive, I’m afraid. Note too that the article you cite reads 由于工信部的通知中也用了“预装”一词,因此按照一般理解,媒体普遍认为是把这款软件强制装进了电脑, which allows that the initial memo is confusing at best.

    Hearing from the software developers is good, but to really clear the air needs the MIIT to say something, which they haven’t to this point.

  15. Charles Liu Says:

    zhwj, I believe the two citations in 13 clearly demonstrates the difference between “预装” – preinstall/bundle, and “安装” – install.

    Also, the original 5/19 mandate made no mention that end users have to run Green Dam.

    If you want more quotes directly from MIIT, here’s one:


    据新华社电 昨日,工信部有关负责人说,由政府出资提供过滤软件供社会免费使用是国际通行做法,目的就是为防止未成年人受互联网不良信息的影响。

    (okay, blah, blah about keeping young people safe…)


    The “end user can freely choose to install or not” quote from MIIB offical shows they are asking for bundle not preinstall.

  16. Allen Says:

    Let’s take a slightly different track.

    Let’s assume that the gov’t can rightfully regulate illicit activities on the net and that pornography is a vice. If you don’t think pornography is a vice, then let’s assume for the sake of discussion we are talking about “child pornography” – most I think would agree that’s a vice.

    So let’s assume the Chinese gov’t want to ban child pornography on the net.

    Does the gov’t have a right to:

    1. urge citizens to install censoring software at the end user’s machine to filter out child pornography?
    2. urge service providers to install censoring software at the gateway to filter out child pornography?
    3. install software in various nodes on the net within China to filter out child pornography?
    4. pass law that cracks down on child pornography?
    5. enforce laws that crack down hard on those making, selling, distributing, buying child pornography?

  17. S.K. Cheung Says:

    To Allen:
    1) yes, it can so urge. But unless and until the program is adequately debugged so as to perform its stated task with “reasonable” fidelity (ie filter out the stuff it’s supposed to filter, but leave everything else that it’s not supposed to touch), I don’t think it can so insist.
    2) yes…in fact, it should so insist, again assuming that the ISP can do so without unintentionally filtering out other stuff.
    3) not sure, as it becomes less transparent if the government is in charge of the filtering
    4) absolutely
    5) absolutely. In fact, it should emphasize on the user side (ie those who own, possess, or buy the stuff). It’s market driven, so to me, if you take away the market, you take away the incentive to make/sell/distribute the stuff as well.

  18. Allen Says:

    @SKC #17,

    Reading your post, I see you have 2 major concerns.

    1. quality of software
    2. can software be used to “ulterior uses.”

    Regarding quality, I agree with you that the software should be “adequately debugged.” The question is what “adequate” means here. Personally I thought it was good enough. Nothing is perfect. The important thing is for the software to be adaptable – i.e. to allow an easy process for the software to be readily updated.

    Regarding ulterior uses – this is the point I was trying to bring out – and which you did. So we are ok about cracking down on child pornography – but we are concerned that it might be used for other things. What about if the software is used to filter out just general pornography? Is that a legitimate use? Some people here would say that’s ok – some people would say, that’s a restriction on freedom of speech. But what if we go further? What if the gov’t decides that FLG needs to be controlled? A lot of people here would shriek – THAT’S THE PROBLEM; CHINA IS GOING TO USE THE SOFTWARE FOR POLITICAL OPPRESSION!

    Now I personally don’t think FLG ought to be controlled. But then you can probably also guess what I might say next: if the gov’t of China – as the legitimate gov’t of China – wants to control that – so be that. That’s not an illicit use. That’s a legitimate use. It’s “ulterior” use only if you apply Western standards, but not if you use Chinese standards.

    Now people might say – but Allen, Allen … – don’t you see that censoring out child pornography is one thing, but censoring out legitimate religious / political debate is another?

    Maybe…. But then we go back to a different issue. It has little to do with how “invasive” the software really is. The software is what it is. It filters out things that are deemed inappropriate – such as child porn. The controversy is not about the software per se – but really over how the software might be used – which turns on the broader issue of what ought to be the proper boundary of free speech in China in general…

    All this kind of reminds me of the outcry over the deployment of public traffic / security cameras in the Beijing Olympics. People were concerned that the system deployed for “security” could be used for “political oppression.”

    The problem there (and here, too, I argue) is not the camera system (filtering software) per se, but with a strong distrust of the CCP.

  19. Shane9219 Says:

    “China’s government is paternalistic …”

    People with this view carry deep western tradition in mind. They don’t know Chinese societies were built upon a very different and implicit set of social contracts than the explicit ones cherished and openly marketed by the West.

    “paternalistic” is one unique perspective of Chinese culture with deep tradition (formed as earlier as China’s recorded civilization). Under Chinese culture, a person or an organization is required to make a genuine and deep commitment to a relation, so called “good faith is not enough, deep faith is required”. Such open-ended commitment to social relations is both rare and missed by the West. Western people actually crave about it as you read novels, bios and watch movies. They just have no idea how to get it.

    This is part of Asian values, which are also common in Japan and Korea. It is one of reason that Japanese companies can be paternalistic while thriving on innovation and market competition, and Japanese societies can be mostly peaceful and stable after WWII. Once misunderstood by western scholars, Japan actually offers a window to China’s future.

    President Obama is right to urge Americans to be better fathers, unlike his own. You don’t need mention such thing in Asian countries like China, Korea and Japan etc. So, the West with its own unique social traditions do have a need to learn from Asia.

  20. raventhorn4000 Says:

    I agree that Eastern cultures do tend to be more paternalistic, and generally more relationship based top down hierarchical in social stratum.

    But in some ways, Western cultures can be even more paternalistic.

    Generally, parents have the right to determine their children’s upbringing in the West, but the Government can emancipate children from their parents, if determined that the parents are “unfit”. (At least in US.)

    This is so, because the legal systems have placed a strong public interest in the welfare of the children as being sometimes greater than the parents’ rights.

    *Sometimes we forget, governments are inherently paternalistic to some degrees.

    They audit your taxes, check your driving records, share your medical records around, have your DNA on file, subpoena your internet records, have credit ratings for you, and certify you “natural born” or “imported”, etc.

    But that’s just generally large societies.

    Gone are the days in US, when a man, if he desires to escape from society, can simply disappear into the wilderness, and the government would not know where he went to.

    In US, and the world in general, technology has made it easier for all government to tag the citizens in all kinds of “registries”, and ‘rating systems”, from birth to death.

    And there would be reasons enough to justify all of these paternalistic record keeping and monitoring. (US and Canada will do so more and more.)

    In the past, it was simply too costly for the governments to do so, in secret. Now and in future, it will be so easy and cheap.

    But this too, is the nature of the beast. Modern civilization, where you cannot hide, because your neighbors will want to know as much as the government, whether you are a danger to them. People can’t trust each other. So, they need and want the government to “verify” you.

    Public safety, public welfare, public security, it’s always Public.

    What’s “private” any more? Just what they can’t get to yet with technology. If they can hear your thoughts, you will bet there will be a monitor / filters for that too.

  21. shane9219 Says:

    @R4K #20

    Yes, similar state laws in US make these state government intrusive. From this angle, it offers yet another proof that people in western societies are not “paternalistic” enough that local society or general public has to pick up the slack.

    To western social standard, a “good faith” commitment to a social relation is good enough. That way, kids of 18 older got kicked out of a home legally and permanently, and parents can then wash their hands and done with their duties.

    A western company can easily lay off people with 2-week of extra pay so long as it does not violate the terms of employement. In Japan, Korea and China, a company hires a person with a common understanding of a life-long commitment.

  22. raventhorn4000 Says:

    Life time commitment is a 2 way street.

    Now that Westerners are going through hard times, they want “life time commitments” of social programs from their governments too.

    Then the natural progression is that the governments in the West will become more “paternalistic” over time.

    It’s inevitable that the West become more “Easternized” in that sense.

  23. raventhorn4000 Says:

    Interesting reading on the net:


    But the The China Daily quoted Zhang Chenmin, the general manager of Jinhui, as claiming that co-developer Beijing Dazheng Human Language Technology Academy Co provided the blacklist terms. Solid Oak chief executive Brian Milburn said last week that Green Dam’s filtering terms looked very similar to its own, and that the URLs used to update the terms were the ones CyberSitter used.

    “I cannot deny that the two filters’ databases of blacklisted URL addresses might share similarities. After all, they are all well known international pornographic websites that all porn-filters are meant to block,” Zhang told The China Daily. “But we didn’t steal their programming code.”

    Zhang told the paper that it was illegal to deconstruct the Green Dam software and post the details on the Internet, and that the company planned to sue the authors of the report, which include J. Alex Halderman, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at the University of Michigan.

    On the 1st part, I note, databases are only copyright protected in US for the “entire compilation”. “filtering terms” and “urls” are not copyright protected individually.

    On the 2nd part, though, Zhang is wrong as to reverse engineering software codes for the purpose of litigation. It is legal to reverse engineer codes for litigation purposes. However, special clause in DMCA in US makes it crime for anyone to make technology to circumvent copyrighted material, or to proliferate circumvention technology, except done for academic research. While the U of Michigan study is arguably academic, posting the information about Green Dam code could be argued as “circumvention” of “copyright material”. But that’s a stretch. DMCA clause is meant for encryption technologies, not run of the mill software filters.

    Green Dam’s assertion on the 2nd part is very weak.

  24. raventhorn4000 Says:

    Here is an embarrassing episode from Solid Oak though, looks like bad karma,


    “A recent list of sites blocked by Cybersitter – pulled before the company took the filter file offline – was posted anonymously to Declan McCullagh’s fight-censorship email discussion list Monday. The decrypted file shows that while most of the sites blocked by Cybersitter are pornographic in nature, a number are not.
    Among the sites blocked by Cybersitter on Monday were Cyborganic Gardens; the National Organization for Women; the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation; several regional ISPs; Peacefire; the Ethical Spectacle, which has criticized Solid Oak’s blocking practices; and the chocolatier Godiva.”

    LOL! 🙂

    And this:


    “But neither security folk nor anti-censorship activists are crying too hard for this particular victim. Solid Oak’s got what you’d call a history.
    Back in the mid-1990s, in the first flush of the Communications Decency Act and the gold rush for companies that purported to filter Internet content for pornography, hate speech, and such, Cybersitter came under an immense amount of scrutiny for extending itself past simple porn-filtering to block sites ranging from the National Organization for Women to Godiva Chocolate, as well as LGBT support sites, animal-rights information, certain ethics publications, a history of Plymouth Rock and the Mayflower, sites containing the phrase “don’t buy CyberSitter,” and any reference to anti-censorship activist Bennett Haselton.

    Solid Oak officials famously railed at Haselton, exhorting him at one point to “hang out at the mall with the other kids” (Haselton was a junior at Vanderbilt at the time) and telling CNET that “he doesn’t know anything, and he’s just a kid.” As for NOW and other groups blocked, Milburn told CyberWire Dispatch that “If NOW doesn’t like it, tough… We have not and will not bow to any pressure from any organization that disagrees with [our] philosophy.”

    Further press scrutiny seemed to agitate company president Brian Milburn even further. At one point, he told reporter Declan McCullagh that he’d requested that the Department of Justice “launch a criminal investigation” into McCullagh and his publication (back then, The Netly News) for allegedly publishing “source code” and “reverse engineering” the product. Another researcher who published instructions on how to block CyberSitter was blocked by the software, as was his entire ISP — CyberSitter, unlike other filtering software, was at that time not able to block specific URLs and thus chose to block the entire domain.”

  25. Wukailong Says:

    Er, how did this discussion about paternalism start? Was it from another thread?

    I agree that Eastern cultures as a whole might come off as more paternalistic than Western ones, but there is no lack of paternalism in Western (mostly European) societies. I’m not even sure that’s a bad thing in itself – paternalism can be intrusive in certain ways, but it can also be convenient if it frees you from thinking about low-level details.

    Public healthcare was discussed here some time ago. I haven’t been in the US long enough to evaluate that system, but when I was young it was often held up as a sort of anti-pattern to justify the local system. In China I have private insurance, and it’s certainly more work for me as a person than the public system is. So in areas like this, I have nothing against “paternalism.” I grew up expecting “lifetime commitment”, so now I actually feel bad not contributing to my old home country taxwise. 😉

    @raventhorn4000 (#23): Interesting post. It’s hard to piece all the reports together, but I remember the first claims I heard from Solid Oak were that the data files were copied, rather than the code.

  26. S.K. Cheung Says:

    To Allen:
    Agree that the definition of software quality is nebulous, which probably explains why you put adequate in “” and I put reasonable in “”. Maybe we can leave it as, I believe, what the Supremes once said about pornography: I’ll know it when I see it.

    “a strong distrust of the CCP”
    —you betcha. If the point is that the CCP is in charge, so she can do whatever she wants, and ain’t nobody gonna stop her, then this discussion, as well as probably most discussions on this blog, would be extremely short. And presumably, if the CCP does something, like filtering access to websites, she does so with justification that is sufficient for herself; I think the question boils down to whether such justification suffices for the larger non-CCP audience (and that includes apparently 95% of Chinese people).

    As you suggest, who should get to determine what is inappropriate? Should it be the domain of the CCP alone? Obviously you know where I stand on that, but as others have pointed out, that matters not. I do wonder, however, where most PRC citizens stand on that.

    To Shane:
    “President Obama is right to urge Americans to be better fathers, unlike his own. ”
    — it’s one thing to exult on the importance of paternal influences when it comes to raising kids; but quite another when speaking of the need for paternalism in governing adults.

    To R4000:
    thanks for #23.

  27. raventhorn4000 Says:


    Yeah, it looks like the case is mostly about copyrights on the database that Solid Oak built, plus perhaps some of the interface code that works with the database.

    Also, there was report from a open source group that accused the Chinese companies of using open source code in violation of the open source agreement to attribute open source code. However, that claim has not been verified yet. U of Michigan report makes no mention of that issue.

    *But one should note:

    Solid Oak essentially has accused the Chinese companies of copying Solid Oak’s “censor list”.

    (1) there is very little legal ground for Solid Oak, since the “censor list” is only copyrightable in its entirety, not in individual items. Unless Solid Oak can prove that Green Dam’s list is more than 70-80% similar, including all formating, Solid Oak cannot win any lawsuits.

    (2) If Green Dam’s list is indeed very similar, then there still the issue of “access”. The problem is, how to prove that the Chinese companies had access to Solid Oak’s database, which according to all reports, is encrypted??

    The kid in Tennessee did crack it, but that was in 1997, and Solid Oak has changed its encryption since then, and modified its list.

  28. Shane9219 Says:


    At least, Asian values are more consistent at individual level as well as state level. The so-called “European values” are more a hypocrisy, because they are often perceived as double-standarded and inconsistent.

  29. Shane9219 Says:

    Google on trial in Italy because of violent YouTube video posting

    We can be assure that this is not the last time. Popular internet destinations and games of virtual world have became virtual “public squares” with no clear code of conduct applied to these commercial operators with sole intention of making enormous profits.


  30. Steve Says:

    @ Shane: Not sure what point you’re trying to make. If I understood the article correctly, someone uploaded a video of a kid with Down’s syndrome getting bullied by four students. The four students get expelled from school because of the video. This is a bad thing? Did I miss something?

  31. Shane9219 Says:


    Google’s senior executives were on trial in Italy, and the issue I think is that Google allowed this kind of posting and sharing without volunteering some kind of self-censorship, until they are forced by authorities or general public. There is a similar thing going on in China against Google operation there.

  32. Shane9219 Says:

    “Green Dam, Google and Internet regulation”

    An editorial piece from Global Times

    “The line between government regulation and public legal rights sometimes is difficult to draw, and it seems especially so in regulating the Internet.

    Every netizen wants to have unrestricted freedom to use the Internet, but a healthy Internet is required for the good of the society.”


  33. raventhorn4000 Says:


    “someone uploaded a video of a kid with Down’s syndrome getting bullied by four students. The four students get expelled from school because of the video. This is a bad thing? Did I miss something?”

    Yes, it is a bad thing.

    videotaping police abuse is one thing. Online posting of such videos would be for protecting the witnesses’ identity, and to report crimes.

    Here, too many private bullying videos are making onto the web, not for the purpose of reporting crimes, but to serve to further humiliate the victims.

    Google should filter such contents. And google executives in Europe should know the laws of Europe well enough to know that European censorship of such materials are at much higher standards than US.

  34. raventhorn4000 Says:

    In the arena of Internet Censorship laws, one should keep in mind the following recent case histories:

    (1) French Court found Yahoo liable for allowing Pro-Nazi websites to be accessible through Yahoo index/search, and specifically ordered Yahoo to actively filter all such websites, and pay fines.

    (2) Germany has similar requirements for Nazi websites and “scientologists”.

    In these requirements, Internet indexing services and search engine companies are required by local European laws to comply with specific filtering requirements, regardless of how expensive it would be for Yahoo or Google to comply.

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