08/01/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

China's "Green Dam" Overflows and Bursts

Chinese Internet users won an important victory this week when the Chinese government indefinitely delayed implementation of the widely condemned "Green Dam" filtering mandate. In a face-saving move, China, noting that "some manufacturers have said the workload is too large, the time too short and that they are not fully prepared..." announced that "according to the actual situation, the pre-installation can be postponed."

That's the good news. The better news is that, although this isn't the first time the Chinese government has retreated from an unreasonable Internet related mandate, it is the first time that there has been such a transparent, coordinated and vocal effort both in and out of the country to halt the order.

The "Green Dam-Youth Escort" plan would have forced companies to install state-approved Internet filtering software on every computer sold in the country. Efforts to implement the plan appear to have foundered under broad opposition from computer industry trade associations and governmental leaders in the United States, Canada and Europe; and most critically, a savvy network of connected Chinese activists who exposed the folly of the plan and the faults in the technology, and knew how to stir up tensions and disagreements between factions inside the government.

For Internet and technology companies now facing censorship and surveillance demands around the world, the lesson out of China blows up the conventional wisdom that there is nothing that companies can do when China makes unreasonable demands that risk user rights. Instead of asking " how high" when told to "jump," the big lesson is that push back can work if companies are willing to collaborate on a strategy to resist such demands and if democratic governments are prepared to put their weight behind that resistance. And to paraphrase an old song, "if it can happen there, it can happen anywhere."

The second piece of conventional wisdom that the Green Dam fiasco swept away was the view that the only Internet companies like Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft faced Internet human rights challenges and that the rest of the sector didn't have to think about these issues when entering new markets or launching new products services in risky places. Now, the broader technology industry surely understands that software and hardware manufacturers are at risk of becoming the target of repressive laws intended to limit users' online freedom.

With that new knowledge comes a responsibility -- individually as companies and collectively as an industry -- to understand and mitigate human rights risk and to stand together against demands that put user rights at risk. It is also important for the industry to collaborate with others that have skin in the game to chart an ethical path forward toward a sustainable global standard for corporate responsibility on these issues. This is the goal of the Global Network Initiative (GNI), a collaborative effort of Internet companies, human rights, Internet and press freedom groups, social investors and academics (I helped to coordinate and facilitate the efforts to create GNI), which was launched late last year to help companies in this sector craft a systematic approach to respecting human rights. All technology companies that do business globally should consider joining the GNI. As we witnessed this week, collaborative action can work.