Thursday, January 14, 2010

Ethan Zuckerman on Google in China

Ethan Zuckerman outlines one of several scenarios:

Google is about to join the front lines of the anticensorship wars.
Hal Roberts, John Palfrey and I published a study of tools designed to subvert and circumvent internet censorship a few months back, based on research we conducted over the course of three years. In the course of that research, we ended up with a simple realization about the design of censorship circumvention software:

A robust anti-censorship system has, at minimum, three components:
- Lots of non-contiguous IP addresses, making it difficult for censors to block the entry points into the system
- Huge amounts of bandwidth that can access the public internet, as a censorship circumvention system is basically an ISP
- Multiple methods to feed fresh IP addresses to your users

This isn’t a complete definition, of course – good anticensorship systems use SSL encryption to prevent keyword blocking, but that’s a solved problem. The three components above tend to be very hard for small anti-circumvention projects to solve. It’s very hard to obtain lots and lots of IP addresses, and very expensive to provision sufficient bandwidth… unless you’re Google, in which case, these obstacles should be trivial. There’s still lots of work that needs to be done ensuring that users of circumvention systems get fresh IP addresses, but a Google-backed anticensorship system (perhaps operated in conjunction with some of the smart activists and engineers who’ve targeted censorship in Iran and China?) would be massively more powerful (and threatening!) than the systems we know about today.

These tools would have a built-in market – the millions of users who were enjoying Google’s tools from within China – and could radically change the landscape of the internet freedom field. An emphasis on internet freedom tools would allow Google to engage with a smaller Chinese market, but would allow them to maintain a toe in the waters while maintaining a stance of disengagement with the Chinese government.

Is Google going to do this? I have no idea. I hope so. They could have done so previously, but it would have been viewed as a shot across China’s bow. Now that they’ve launched a torpedo, that shot across the bow seems more likely.

The overall context seems to be that Google is never going to make much money in China anyhow, so why not go all in for a free internet, which is crucial to their long term success in their core markets. The only thing that could kill Google is the collapse of a free and open 'net.

Of course, creation of a massive anti-censorship apparatus would have considerable impact on internet use and policies in schools, too.

No comments: