Google takes on China-Jonathan Zittrain

January 24, 2010

[FACT comments: Google has a ton of money. Imagine Google simply putting its tech resources into making the ’net uncensorable…anywhere.]

Google takes on China

Jonathan Zittrain

The Future of the Internet: January 12, 2010

http://futureoftheinternet.org/google-cn

Google announced today that it would cease (well, phase out) censoring the results in google.cn, the Chinese-language version of its famed search engine.  It’s a pretty stunning move, both in its fact and in its execution.  First, the announcement of “A new approach to China” may appear to have buried the lede.  The lion’s share of the post is devoted to describing a series of coordinated attacks on the accounts of human rights activists, including those who use Google.  It includes a link to the amazing story of GhostNet, discovered by fellow ONI researchers when the Dalai Lama gave them his oddly-acting laptop to examine.

Companies rarely share information about the cyberattacks they experience — conventional wisdom has it that it makes the company appear vulnerable, and drives customers away.  Here Google is open about the attacks, while of course assuring readers that it had tightened security as a result.  Google then links these attacks to a lessening of enthusiasm for doing business in China.  Eliminating censorship in google.cn is only mentioned after that.

Suppose the Chinese government acts as expected and tells Google that it may no longer operate in China.  Google.cn might vanish as a domain name, since it’s hosted under the Chinese country-code TLD of .cn, ultimately controllable by the Chinese government.  But the search engine found there could of course keep operating from a different location, like cn.google.com.  Suppose then that China attempts to filter out traffic to and from that new location — and to and from google.com for good measure, as it has done from time to time, especially before the advent of google.cn and its agreement to censor.  (We’ll be watching for such moves at herdict.org, a site where users can report Web blockages.)

What next?  My hope, and expectation, is that Google engineers who might have been a bit halfhearted about implementing censorship mandates in google.cn could be full-throttle in coming up with ways for Google to be viewed despite any network interruptions between site and user.  There are lots of unexplored options here.  They’re unexplored not because they’re infeasible, but because most sites would rather not provoke a government that filters.  So they don’t undertake to get information out in ways that might evade blockages.  Here, Google would have nothing more to lose, so could pioneer some new approaches.  Circumvention of filtering (or other blockages, for that matter) tends to happen on the user side of things, seeking out proxies like the Tor network, or anonymizer.com.

To be sure, many of the larger benefits of operating in China originally cited by Google four years ago — exposing the citizenry to services beyond those locally grown and monitored; engaging them beyond the “China Wide Web” to which some government officials aspire to limit them; and gaining market share that can create momentum and support for later loosening of restrictions — may attenuate.  Google.cn is less known and used than, say, the local Baidu search engine, which boasts about 60% market share.  That share is about to get even bigger.

But drawing a line is both the right move and a brilliant one.  It helps realign Google’s business with its ethos, and masterfully recasts the firm in a place it will feel more comfortable: supporting the free and open dissemination of information rather than metering it out according to undesirable (and capricious) government standards.

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