Google Can Bring an End to Censorship in 10 Days. Here's how.
On November 20, 2013, Eric Schmidt, Google’s Executive Chairman, was quoted as saying during a speech in Washington:
“We can end government censorship in a decade. The solution to government surveillance is to encrypt everything.”
Another report on the same speech notes:
He said he thinks there will be movements from Chinese citizens using technology that country’s leaders won’t be able to control or stop, such as the campaigns in favor of gay rights and same-sex marriage that developed within the U.S.
“You cannot stop it if it’s a good idea broadly held,” Schmidt said. “That’s how China will change.”
If we are to take Mr. Schmidt seriously, we must ask what Google is doing in practice in the most censored of all Internet markets: China. The answer, unfortunately, is disappointing. Over the last few years, all that Google has seemingly done in China is to put up a warning to users trying to search for blocked keywords - and even that feature was later removed. What’s more, anti-censorship and anti-surveillance technology that has been rolled out on Google Search in other parts of the world have been withheld from the country where it would matter the most. Encrypted-by-default search was rolled out in the US quickly after the NSA revelations, but not in China where users are not only monitored but thousands of keywords are blocked altogether.
While Google has stopped moving the boundaries in China, other players have made a difference. The code-sharing site Github uses encrypted-only access and, perhaps not intentionally, broke the pattern of Internet control in China. When the website was used for spreading circumvention tools and even an appeal asking the White House to ban anyone working on the Great Firewall from traveling to the US, the authorities predictably moved to block the website. What was not predictable was the outcry that followed, given the importance of Github as a tool to developers and - crucially - businesses. A couple of days later, Github was unblocked, and has remained unblocked since. That set a groundbreaking example for what would become known as Collateral Freedom.
Github is not on a mission to end online censorship in China. We are, and earlier this week, we successfully unblocked the Reuters Chinese website which had been blocked on November 15. We also unblocked the China Digital Times website, which has been blocked in China for years and earlier created mirrors for our FreeWeibo project. Almost immediately, these mirrors got thousands of visits a day from China. But we are just a small team of activists with very limited resources. If anyone has the power to implement this technology widely it’s Google. Here’s what they could do to effectively end online censorship in China, not in ten years, but in just ten days:
1. Google needs to first switch its China search engine (google.com.hk) to HTTPS by default. It has already done this in the US and in other markets but not in China. What this essentially means is that for Chinese netizens using Google, they will be taken to https://www.google.com.hk, the encrypted version of the search engine. By using the encrypted version, the great firewall of China cannot selectively block search results on thousands of sensitive terms.
2. While we provide a pretty comprehensive list of websites that are blocked in China, Google holds the best list of blocked websites, everywhere in the world. If the website that a user tries to visit from the search results on Google is blocked in the country that the user is in, Google should redirect the user to a mirrored version of the same website hosted by Google.
That’s it. Two simple steps and Google can end online censorship by the end of this month in China. Quite possibly they could end online censorship just about everywhere in the world before the new year. Forget about not doing evil - this would be something that we could all celebrate.
Critics of our approach will say that the "do it, they might not block you" argument is tenuous at best. But that is not what we are saying. What we are saying is:
“Google! Do it! If they don't block you, freedom wins. If they do block you, there will be much more opposition to censorship inside China and the system will be forced to change, thus freedom wins too!”
Win-win. If the authorities could not stand up to Github - Github!? - then what chance do they have against Google.
We are gambling with Google’s stack that they are big enough and important enough that the Chinese authorities would not dare block it in mainland China completely. They tried it once before and backed down after a day. They have sometimes made Google services like Gmail excruciatingly difficult to use. But given how essential Google’s services are to so many individuals and businesses, blocking the company entirely would have immediate and disastrous economic consequences.
The Github story provides a precedent for our willingness to bet the house. On that morning in January, when developers woke up to find that Github had been blocked, they were outraged. Public pleas were made with the government to restore service. These were not the normal pleas that censorship authorities were used to receiving. This was about dollars and yuan - and everybody in China understands the power of making money. After three days, and a likely confirmation of the economic damage that was being caused, the Chinese authorities restored access to Github.
Github is a very important service for developers around the world. But its importance pales in comparison to Google. Try hard to imagine what it would be like if all of a sudden everything Google just instantly disappeared. Goodbye to search, farewell Chrome, your personal Gmail account is gone and you may not be able to access your work email. You will have to find another translation engine. You will be desperately hunting down important photos (Picasa) and documents (Docs) on your computer. Your clients will be calling you to ask why your website is down at about the same time you notice that yesterday your online store brought in absolutely no revenue.
Our two step approach is not technically complicated. In the past, we have repeatedly asked Google to make its search engine HTTPS by default but it took Edward Snowden and a bunch of files to make Google do this quietly for the US market.
Every time somebody conducts a search on Google and clicks a link that should take them to a website only to find that it is blocked, Google knows that the site is blocked within the cross-site tracking of Google analytics. They also have an index of the entire content of the internet. It would be easy for Google to make a change to its search engine, so that when a person clicks on a link that Google knows is blocked, they would redirect that user to an unblocked version of the page, hosted on an unblockable proxy. They could also add a small indication in their search results which would basically say: “This page is blocked in your country, but we have taken the liberty to protect your liberty by redirecting you to a mirror of this page”. Google is already half way there. Google caches most Internet pages and provides them to users. The cache is hosted on a separate domain, which is blocked in China. Google can simply host the cache on a subpath, say https://www.google.com/webcache (and in country specific domains) to bypass the block. The great firewall will no longer be able to prevent visitors from China accessing this cache without blocking Google entirely.
Again, this is a big gamble on Google’s part. But the Chinese authorities have not moved to block the three mirrors we have created so far for FreeWeibo, Reuters and China Digital Times. The window of opportunity is open for Google to make its move.
We used technology to create our mirrors. It did not take us long to mirror both the Reuters and the China Digital Times websites. Google could do what we did in the blink of an eye. We also believe that they could make Mr. Schmidt’s dream a reality and truly end online censorship once and for all. We estimate it would take a small team at Google about ten days of work - but this is Google we are talking about. They could likely do this over late night tofu pizza.
The simplicity of our solution, however, begs other questions. Why have they not done this before? Google made somewhat of an effort to be diplomatic about their entry into China. When they decided that they would make a partial pullout from China, their announcement was a little less diplomatic. Google knows that they can do this and that there will be nothing that the Chinese authorities can do to stop this short of completely blocking their service. So why have they not pushed the envelope with China, especially when China pushed first?
Google still has three offices in China (in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou). Is Google worried that these offices will be closed down? They may be worried about protecting the safety of their employees in China (as David Drummond alluded to in his March, 2010 blog post). But surely Google could do everything in their power to help employees try to emigrate to other Google locations and, at the very least, they could help their employees find new jobs in China. Are they worried that their employees will be in danger if Google decided to make such a change to how it operates in China?
Is Google worried about the revenue it is generating from clients in China? Perhaps, but their current 3% market share in search pales in comparison to the revenue the company generates in other markets. In reality, if the company does make the changes we are proposing, they will have more chances to make money from advertising in the China market.
There must be Google employees who have already proposed doing what we have suggested above. Why has Google not made this move? Maybe Mr. Schmidt feels that it is his responsibility, as the Executive Chairman of the world’s biggest and most famous internet company, to speak out on causes that he, the co-founders of Google and Google employees feel are important. But peering down from his pedestal. Mr. Schmidt should not lose sight of his company’s own ability to bring about this change.