BEIJING - China's authoritarian government has backed away from an order to load Internet-filtering software on every new computer after a major outcry by citizens accustomed to the relative freedom of online life.

Legal challenges, petitions, and satirical cartoons had been part of a broad grass-roots effort to scuttle the initiative since it was announced earlier this month.

A Ministry of Industry and Information Technology official said yesterday that Chinese computer users were not required to use or install the "Green Dam Youth Escort" software - though the software will still come preinstalled or be included on a compact disc with all PCs sold on the mainland from July 1.

Executives from the company that created the software had said earlier that it was possible to uninstall Green Dam, but it was not clear until yesterday that the government's new regulation would not penalize people who chose not to use it.

The change marked a small victory for a burgeoning anticensorship movement in China. Internet users in particular have expressed growing frustration with official efforts to monitor and restrict online content. China's Internet has emboldened public opinion and given citizens the tools they need to mobilize around a cause, such as exposing corruption or halting a project believed threatening to public health.

Although the government says the software is aimed at blocking violence and pornography, users who have tried it say it also prohibits visiting sites with discussions of homosexuality, mention of the banned Falun Gong spiritual group, and even images of pigs because the software confuses them with naked human bodies.

Many Chinese Internet users have mercilessly mocked the software. Creative critics have posted at least a dozen variations of the "Green Dam Girl," imagined as a busty Japanese manga-style cartoon character in an army cap and mini dress who totes a bucket of soy sauce, considered a disinfectant, for cleaning up dirty Web sites.

Yang Hengjun, 45, a blogger in Guangzhou, said Chinese parents today were more inclined to demand a free and open Internet over a free but flawed pornography filter. "On the Internet, we can do many things and we can criticize the government," he said. "Having used the Internet like this, we are now unable to tolerate having it restricted."

He cited the Internet role in exposing and criticizing recent scandals, such as the contamination of infant formula with the industrial chemical melamine and research that showed schools collapsed more easily than other buildings in last year's Sichuan earthquake.

Still, China has the world's most extensive system of Web monitoring and censorship. Operators are required to monitor Web pages and bulletin boards and delete content deemed subversive. But controlling content has become increasingly difficult. China's Internet population is the world's largest with 298 million users. Chinese bloggers total 162 million.