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.

User Input What you get in china What you get in the u.s
http://www.google.com http://www.google.com.hk https://www.google.com
https://www.google.com http://www.google.com.hk https://www.google.com
http://www.google.com.hk http://www.google.com.hk https://www.google.com.hk
https://www.google.com.hk https://www.google.com.hk https://www.google.com.hk

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.

 

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Thu, Nov 30, 2017

About those 674 apps that Apple censored in China

Apple opened the door on its censorship practices in China - but just a crack.

Tue, May 23, 2017

Is China establishing cyber sovereignty in the United States?

Last week Twitter came under attack from a DDoS attack orchestrated by the Chinese authorities. While such attacks are not uncommon for websites like Twitter, this one proved unusual. While the Chinese authorities use the Great Firewall to block harmful content from reaching its citizens, it now uses DDoS attacks to take down content that appears on websites beyond its borders. For the Chinese authorities, it is not simply good enough to “protect” the interests of Chinese citizens at home - in their view of cyber sovereignty, any content that might harm China’s interests must be removed, regardless of where the website is located.

And so last week the Chinese authorities determined that Twitter was the target. In particular, the authorities targeted the Twitter account for Guo Wengui (https://twitter.com/KwokMiles), the rebel billionaire who is slowly leaking information about corrupt Chinese government officials via his Twitter account and through his YouTube videos. Guo appeared to ramp up his whistle-blowing efforts last week and the Chinese authorities, in turn, ramped up theirs.

via https://twitter.com/KwokMiles/status/863689935798374401

Mon, Dec 12, 2016

China is the obstacle to Google’s plan to end internet censorship

It’s been three years since Eric Schmidt proclaimed that Google would chart a course to ending online censorship within ten years. Now is a great time to check on Google’s progress, reassess the landscape, benchmark Google’s efforts against others who share the same goal, postulate on the China strategy and offer suggestions on how they might effectively move forward.

flowers on google china plaque

Flowers left outside Google China’s headquarters after its announcement it might leave the country in 2010. Photo: Wikicommons.

What has Google accomplished since November 2013?

The first thing they have accomplished is an entire rebranding of both Google (now Alphabet) and Google Ideas (now Jigsaw). Throughout this blog post, reference is made to both new and old company names.

Google has started to develop two main tools which they believe can help in the fight against censorship. Jigsaw’s DDoS protection service, Project Shield, is effectively preventing censorship-inspired DDoS attacks and recently helped to repel an attack on Brian Krebs’ blog. The service is similar to other anti-DDoS services developed by internet freedom champions and for-profit services like Cloudflare.

Thu, Nov 24, 2016

Facebook: Please, not like this

Facebook is considering launching a censorship tool that would enable the world’s biggest social network to “enter” the China market. Sadly, nobody will be surprised by anything that Mark Zuckerberg decides to do in order to enter the China market. With such low expectations, Facebook is poised to usurp Apple as China’s favorite foreign intelligence gathering partner. If the company launches in China using this strategy they will also successfully erase any bargaining power that other media organizations may hold with the Chinese authorities.

Tue, Jul 05, 2016

GreatFire.org 现在开始测试VPN在中国的速度和稳定性

在中国有一个普遍观念,如果你有一个可以使用的VPN,那么你应该保持沉默。就信息自由而言,这种观念的问题在于获取知识竟成了一种秘密。今天,我们推出一个项目,希望能够摧毁这种模型。

我们最新的网站,翻墙中心,目的在于实时提供那些能够在中国使用的翻墙方案的信息和数据。在2011年以来我们就已经开始收集在中国被屏蔽的网站,现在我们也将增加那些可用的VPN和其他翻墙工具。

我们发布翻墙中心主要有四个目的。

我们的首要目标是助长使用翻墙工具的国人的数量。通过分享我们这些工具的信息和数据,我们希望对更广泛的受众展示那些工具时可以使用的。

我们的第二个目标是通过带来工具性能的透明化来提升中国用户的翻墙体验。我们将会测试工具的速度(流行网站的加载速度)和稳定性(流行网站加载成功的程度)。

我们开发速度测试的目的是要真实反映用户的体验。当用户在网站测速时,浏览器在后台会从10个世界上最流行的网站上下载一些资源文件。根据Alexa排名,这些网站分别是Google, Facebook, YouTube, Baidu, Amazon, Yahoo, Wikipedia, QQ, Twitter and Microsoft Live。速度的结果是简单的计算下载文件文件的大小和下载所需的时间。我们同样也会验证下载的文件是否完整。如果文件的内容是错误的或者在40秒内无法完成下载,我们会标记为失败。这个数据被我们用来生成另一个重要指标-稳定性。

其他的速度测试工具仅仅是通过发送数据到它们自己的服务器来测量上传和下载的速度。这种数据无法反应用户的体验,因为正常的浏览器通常会频繁的发送一系列的请求(而不是上传或下载一个大文件)到许多的服务器,而不止是一个。

我们的第二个指标 - 稳定性 - 是其他的服务通常不会测试的。一个健康的互联网连接应该达到100%的稳定性,除非有人在测试中把网线拔了。但是在中国使用翻墙工具却不是这样。任何时候连接都有可能变得不稳定或十分缓慢。根据请求的大小,最终的地点和代理的方式,一些请求有可能会失败。比较服务的稳定性要比比较速度更加重要。

你可以测试任意的翻墙工具,列表之外的也可以。中国的VPN用户也可以测试他们的工具,测试结果也会添加到数据库中。这些数据都将会对所有人开放。实时的在中国测试是非常重要的,因为VPN随时都可能被封锁或解封。我们欢迎任何的关于测试过程的反馈。有技术能力的用户也可以通过审查我们的javascript代码来获悉我们的测试是如何工作的。

我们郑重的邀请翻墙工具的开发者们向我们提供测试过程的反馈。我们的第三个目标是帮助这些开发人员改进他们的产品,让更多的选择适用于中国的顾客。此外,越多的工具可以工作,就意味着中国当局对翻墙的打击就会越难。

中国的用户都知道,在过去的18个月中当局加紧了对翻墙工具的攻击。而翻墙中心将会吹响反击的号角。反其道而行之,让这不再成为秘密。我们要鼓励人们分享翻墙工具可以工作的信息。

我们的第四个目标就是要为GreatFire.org创造收益。目前GreatFire仍然依靠世界各地的热心人士和组织的捐款。我们希望减少对这些机构的依赖,并探寻GreatFire.org自给自足的道路。用户只需到翻墙中心就能购买任意一款我们目前在测试的付费工具。GreatFire将作为这些工具在中国的经销商,因此VPN供应商会给予我们每个零售的一部分。用户也不必在中国购买这些翻墙服务。

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Comments

But surely it's trivial for the chinese authorities to just block *.google.* altogether and suddenly you don't even have the option for using google or any of it's services.

This all nothing more than PR. Microsoft and friends can solve censorship in half a day. All they need to do is roll out an update that enable Opportunistic IPSec to all Windows users and server.

This function is already built, the amount of work Microsoft has to do is minimal. It's just a matter of making sure every (or most users and services) enable it.

Of course this will never happen because it wouldn't just mess with the Chinese Great Firewall, it would also interfere with the NSA's work.

The Chinese authorities have made Google unattractive enough that it only has a 3% market share in China. Youtube is completely inaccessible in China. How "crucial" can it be?

Putting the cache under google.com is a security risk for Google because of the cached content will operate under same (sub)domain rules. Just saying; there's no need to get so technical in the article.

Surely google china will be closed entirely. What a stupid idea! You don't Know China.

When I go to Google China, it's https by default. So did they change something in the past few days?

"But surely it's trivial for the chinese authorities to just block *.google.* altogether and suddenly you don't even have the option for using google or any of it's services."

Bingo. As I read this article, I was waiting for this question to be addressed, and it was never really answered to my satisfaction.

Saying "Google is too big and important to block" overlooks two key points:

1) the Party treats control over information as an issue of existential importance, and;

2) there are a number of viable "second-best" options for the Chinese internet user performing a search. Many Chinese friends of mine actually prefer Baidu.

So please explain to me: who is the constituency who would raise a hue and cry such that the Party--confronted with what it would perceive as an existential threat to its existence--would back down and unblock Google's main search page?

I am by no means arguing against efforts to circumvent, damage, or destroy the GFW. I find its existence appalling. But I'm also disturbed by articles such as this one, which present facile solutions to complicated problems, employing lazy logic and unsupported assumptions to cast companies such as Google (which seems at least to be TRYING to do the right thing) in the ill-fitting role of bad guy; or if not bad guy, then at least an enabler.

Was this article run by the advisory board? Given the level of subtlety and understanding on display in Rebecca MacKinnon's writings on the Chinese internet, I find it hard to believe that she would endorse this article's conclusions wholesale.

"existential threat to its existence"

redundancy win is redundant

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How can you write a post about Google ending censorship when YouTube comments is so heavily censored? If you create a comment on the la clippers channel about matchfixing in sport, the comment gets blocked. Surely freedom of speech means being allowed to make any comment. Google/YouTube has actually made commenting highly censored and easier to manage by paid shills.

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