BEIJING — China postponed a plan to require personal computer makers to supply Internet-filtering software today, retreating in the face of protests by Washington and Chinese Web surfers just hours before it was due to take effect.
The rule would have required manufacturers to include filtering software known as Green Dam with every computer produced for sale in China starting Wednesday.
A two-sentence announcement by the government's Xinhua News Agency said regulators "will delay" the plan but gave no indication whether it might take effect later. It gave no other details.
Top U.S. trade officials protested the plan as a possible trade barrier. Industry groups warned that the software might cause security problems. Free-speech advocates attacked the plan as censorship.
American diplomats met earlier with Chinese officials to express concern about the plan.
Chinese authorities said Green Dam is needed to shield children from violent and obscene material online. But analysts who have reviewed the program say it also contains code to filter out material the government considers politically objectionable.
Chinese Web surfers ridiculed the software and circulated petitions online appealing to Beijing to scrap its order. They said Green Dam would block access to photos of animals and other innocuous subjects.
Producers including Toshiba Corp. and Taiwan's Acer Inc. said they were ready to provide Green Dam on disk with personal computers beginning Wednesday. But industry leaders Hewlett-Packard Inc. and Dell Inc. had avoided making public commitments, possibly waiting for a diplomatic settlement.
China's communist government encourages Internet use for education and business, and the country has the biggest population of Web users, with more than 298 million. But authorities try to block access to material deemed obscene or subversive and Beijing operates the world's most sweeping system of Internet filtering. The new software would have raised those controls to a new level by putting the filter inside each computer.
A California company, Solid Oak Software Inc., complained that some of its software was illegally used in Green Dam. The company said it was preparing for possible legal action if the plan went ahead.
China is important to personal computer makers both as a major manufacturing site and a fast-growing market. It accounts for up to 80 percent of world production.
The Green Dam initiative coincides with a tightening of government controls on Internet use.
Last week, the Health Ministry ordered health-related Web sites that carry research on sexually oriented topics to allow access only to medical professionals.
Also last week, the government issued new rules on "virtual currency" used by some game Web sites, saying it cannot be used to purchase real goods.
Green Dam already is in use in Internet cafes in China and has been installed since the start of this year in PCs sold under a government program that subsidizes appliance sales in the countryside, according to manufacturers and news reports.
"All the computers in this 'Appliances to the countryside' program had this installed or received it on disk," said Yi Juan, a spokeswoman for Great Wall Computer Ltd., a leading domestic PC manufacturer.
Yi said she had no details on how many computers were sold with the software or whether users reported problems. Asked whether customers knew PCs had Internet filters, she said she did not know whether they were informed, but said, "they should know."
The Chinese press has reported extensively on the domestic criticism, an unusual step in a system where the entirely government-controlled media usually promote official policy.