HKFP Voices Science & Technology

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

By Charlie Smith

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.

uProxy, Google’s circumvention tool, stumbled out of the gates and continues to make minimal impact. uProxy is a typical Google product: it has been unnecessarily overthought.

Why create an intriguing engineering solution to circumvention when much easier and effective paths already exist? Why did Google put all of their circumvention tool eggs into the basket of a very experimental idea without first doing adequate research to see whether a peer-to-peer circumvention tool could ever have a hope of singlehandedly solving the problem?

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Amusingly, as featured in a recent piece in Wired, Jigsaw has developed an automated system that is meant to protect the internet against trolls. However, it sounds surprisingly like the automated keyword mechanisms that the Chinese authorities use to censor content.

The Wired piece also mentioned that Jigsaw staff are encouraged to travel to the world’s hotspots to experience internet freedom, or lack thereof, for themselves. While this is admirable, this is not the same thing as having people on the ground and Jigsaw knows this.

Other than racking up the air miles, it is difficult to ascertain the benefits that this disaster-tourism has reaped for the team at Jigsaw or for those who live in danger on a daily basis all around the world. Furthermore, Google has plenty of staff on the ground in China – why not use them, clandestinely and securely, to help contribute to the development of uProxy?

How Google can end online censorship (redux)

We have often been critical of how foreign companies approach the China market and for good reason. Some openly admit that they adhere to the censorship demands of the Chinese authorities – Apple and LinkedIn immediately come to mind. Others try to hide their actions with words or technology. Most companies sadly bow down to the authorities and do whatever it takes to gain market access.

Google has certainly stood apart from their peers, largely because they have tried and failed on different approaches to the China market. They censored and failed and they have not censored and failed.

google china office

Interior of Google’s office in China. Photo: Keso S via Flickr.

Three years ago Eric Schmidt announced that Google would end online censorship within ten years. I wrote a story in The Guardian at that time, critical of Google’s time frame, and pointed out that they could likely achieve their goal in ten days.

But we were certainly in awe of the proclamation. We’ve waited with bated breath since then as have many other internet freedom activists. And now we are going blue in the face.

We offered suggestions to Google in 2013 on how they could defeat censorship in China. Then, as now, our opinions and suggestions are biased. We are biased because we only focus on China. We are biased because we believe that if the plan is to defeat online censorship then the focus should be on China, a country that Eric Schmidt acknowledges is “the world’s most active and enthusiastic filterer of information”.

We are biased because we have developed innovative and widely-used circumvention tools that work in China and Google pays us no heed (and even removed our app from Google Play for a short period of time). We are biased because every day we see how much appetite Chinese have for uncensored news and information.

We are biased because we have made this progress based on limited resources. We are biased because every day we dream about what we might be able to accomplish if we had the human and financial resources that Google has.

Our 2013 suggestions to Google on how they might end online censorship in China are no longer valid, largely because the Chinese authorities moved to completely block everything Google. Our premise at the time was that Google was too big for the authorities to completely block.

From 2013, the authorities set out to disrupt and block Google services in steps, finishing with the complete shutdown of Gmail in December, 2014.

It can be argued that if Google had used its unblocked web properties in 2013 to deliver uncensored content then the authorities would have moved to block everything Google sooner.

Many of the assumptions in our 2013 argument do remain valid. China still possesses the most advanced censorship infrastructure in the world. Again, as Schmidt and Cohen note in their book “The New Digital Age”:

“(China’s) unabashed and unapologetic approach to censorship would naturally appeal to states with strong authoritarian streaks, as well as states with particularly impressionable or very homogenous populations (who would fear the incursion of outside information on an emotional level).”

China is exporting its censorship technology to other states (some of which are re-exporting that technology). Thus the Chinese model of censorship is spreading globally. It makes sense to focus one’s attention on China because that is where the innovation is happening.

google china office

Interior of Google’s office in China. Photo: Keso S via Flickr.

By not focusing attention on China, Google is avoiding taking on the “world’s most censorious nation”. While Google may make gains in pushing back on the censorship efforts of other nations, China will be left unchallenged and will continue to build and refine their censorship techniques, while selling their solution to even more countries.

While Google may feel emboldened about the progress they may be making in smaller countries, with each passing day they are falling behind to China.

We also strongly believe that the sooner circumvention tools are popularised in China, the sooner we will see an end to online censorship. In China’s case, we certainly do not need to wait for 10 years (now another seven years) to bring an end to online censorship.

We simply need to promote the circumvention tools that work and make the collateral cost of blocking those tools too high for the Chinese authorities. This is our approach and, even with our limited resources, we have shown that our approach works.

With Google’s resources, this approach could be accelerated very rapidly, so that a majority of the online population in China had an easy way to circumvent. Move quick enough and the Chinese authorities will be faced with a tough decision. Block off the foreign internet, just when hundreds of millions of Chinese are using it to better themselves and their country? Or back down from censorship controls and admit defeat.

Google could acquire, support and encourage the best circumvention technology out there. The easiest way forward for Google would be to buy a solution that works. Instead they have wasted three years trying to develop their own.

There are many free circumvention tools and they all face the same problem – how to pay for operating costs? If Google could fund this in an effective way, it would be a game changer. If not, those organizations which have working circumvention tools will continue to struggle to pay the bills and scale their solutions.

Google could create an environment for the development of even better tools. For example, they could support circumvention projects that exhibit the best performance, and provide resources for those that need to improve.

Google could then incorporate working technological solutions into their mainstream products. There should be built-in circumvention in Chrome, Gmail, Google Play, etc. Making circumvention mainstream is the key and Google is, in theory, the best suited company to take it on.

Benchmarking internet freedom

Google also needs to set achievable goals for their plan to end online censorship. Somehow Google is being perceived as championing an effort to end online censorship when in fact they have made little progress in the first three years of their ten year plan to combat the efforts of the Chinese authorities.

google china office

Interior of Google’s office in China. Photo: Keso S via Flickr.

China censors more information than any other country. More people are subjected to censorship in China than any other country in the world. Since Schmidt made his announcement in 2013, censorship in China has got worse, not better. Hundreds of human rights activists and lawyers have been put into prison during this time.

Perhaps Google’s lack of progress in China is a sign of poor oversight and the failure of those who share Google’s objectives to hold them to account.

All media, human rights and internet freedom organizations and stakeholders who interact with Google, Google Ideas, Alphabet or Jigsaw should ask Google the following questions. We also invite Google to publicly provide answers to these questions:

  1. Is Google committed to ending online censorship by 2023?
  2. How is the end of online censorship defined? How will success be determined?
  3. Does this goal of ending online censorship include providing free, easy-to-use, fast and stable access to the global internet for all users in China?
  4. There are currently some 700m+ internet users in China. To end online censorship, what is a reasonable goal in terms of the number of users using circumvention?
  5. Will the plan to end online censorship include building circumvention technology into Google software, such as Chrome and the Gmail app? If not, why not?
  6. Does Google intend to develop all the technology and operate all services required to effectively end online censorship by itself, or will it acquire and/or invest in other projects? If Google intends to develop the services by itself, is Google confident that this will succeed, given the lack of results so far?
  7. Everybody is trying to create code which once deployed will cost nothing to run and will somehow make online censorship impossible. All public funding for circumvention technology is geared towards such development. The internet freedom community has spent at least ten years trying to come up with the solution. Nobody has solved it. Does Google still believe that it will be able to come up with such technology? If yes, what gives Google such confidence?

When did Google stop being angry at China?

What a difference a few years makes. In their 2013 book, The New Digital Age, Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen had no problem calling out China on multiple occasions. China is first mentioned ten pages into the book and is referenced more than any other country (and even more than Facebook and Google itself).

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Eric Schmidt. Photo: Wikicommons.

Readers will feel that the 2009 Chinese cyberattack on Google provided some of the impetus to write the book and some of the anger that frames it.

While they may feel that the book is outdated by this point, Schmidt and Cohen did accurately predict different scenarios (lack of respect for intellectual property, real name registration) that have played out in China.

Their stance on Chinese cyberattacks and cyber terrorism is clear:

“While China is by no means the only country engaging in cyberattacks on foreign companies, today it is the most sophisticated and prolific.”

Of course, most of the discussion of China centres on the attacks on Google infrastructure that targeted human rights dissidents in China. But their description of tactics could just as easily be applied to China’s launch of the Great Cannon in March, 2015.

Most importantly, they lay out their own case for focusing on China’s censorship regime, noting several areas of concern including:

  • Huawei exporting and boasting of its censorship-friendly technology when it struck a deal with the Iranian government
  • China’s growing influence in Africa and the willingness to trade censorship technology for access to natural resources
  • How China’s neighbours can be co-opted into playing along with censorship demands lest they be subject to state-sponsored cyber attacks or other negative forms of influence.

In what may be the most prescient thought in their book, Schmidt and Cohen discuss the manufacturers of telecoms equipment and note China’s desire to have influence over what these companies do:

Ericsson and Cisco are less controlled by their respective governments (than Huawei), but there will come a time when their commercial and national interests align and contract with China’s – say, over the abuse of their products by an authoritarian state – and they will coordinate their efforts with their governments on both diplomatic and technical levels.

Which raises the question, is this a description of how Google is dealing with China? How can a company go from criticising China so heavily, so blatantly, so angrily, to avoiding mention of the world’s “world’s most censorious nation”?

What is Google’s strategy for China?

We do not have the answers but we can posit some potential explanations:

  • Despite public perception, Google has not entirely pulled out of China. The company maintains research and development operations in China as well as employees who no doubt continue to explore possible market entry avenues for the company.

Google also continues to sell plenty of advertising to Chinese companies who wish to advertise to markets outside of China. It is possible that many of their employees in China will be threatened with prosecution or jail time if Google decides to put itself in the middle of the internet freedom movement in China.

google china office

Interior of Google’s office in China. Photo: Keso S via Flickr.

This is absolutely a real concern and there are many examples of other foreign companies who have seen their employees end up in a Chinese prison for far less. 

Google can likely continue to attract Chinese advertisers, even if they truly pull out of the market. Google must have tens of thousands of advertisers in the country. When the Chinese authorities want to put pressure on media organizations, they call advertisers and put pressure on them to pull their ads. This would be a lot harder to do in Google’s case.

  • Is Google thinking about “re-entering” the China market? Rumours of Google working with the authorities to try to bring Google Play back to the China market have been swirling since last year. Presumably Google would have to censor apps which appear in the Chinese version of Google Play and perhaps even in other markets.

Apple has paved the way here for all other companies in this regard. Thanks to the actions of Cook and Jobs before him, this would be the minimum effort that Google would have to make. China also has slightly more to lose if it allows Google Play to re-enter the market.

At present, without Google Play, Android users download apps from different, unauthorised app stores, many of which distribute apps that contain malware, in some cases developed by the Chinese authorities themselves, that can be used for surveillance and for cyber attacks.

This is the easiest and simplest explanation for Google’s actions, and has been a well worn track for scores of “moral pygmy-like” foreign companies who want to make money in China.

  • Do Googlers themselves know what is going on? Our circumvention app, FreeBrowser, sends millions of users in China to otherwise-blocked Google services. Google is the app’s default search engine. Yet the Chinese authorities were able to get FreeBrowser stuck in Play Store bureaucratic limbo for almost two weeks.

This clearly illustrates the disconnect between the publicly stated objective, which has fallen solely on Jigsaw’s shoulders, and how things are actually working day-to-day across various businesses within Google. Does the right hand not know what the left is doing?

  • Is Google facing pressure from outside forces to lay off of China? One result from the much heralded Obama/Xi cyber summit was to basically hit the pause button on cyberattacks. Is there a bigger strategy to lay off of China on other internet affairs?

Cohen has previously worked for Clinton in the State Department and much has been made of Schmidt’s relationship with the American authorities. Is there an order from up high to be less public about causing interference in China? Is there an order to do nothing that would interfere with China’s demand for cyber sovereignty? Is it Google’s idea? Is it the USG’s idea?

  • Or is the strategy to stay silent about China, but to accelerate some other, silent, covert plan to derail China’s censorship controls? Nothing that we see in the internet freedom movement in China would indicate that some secret plan is in motion. And given Joe Biden’s recent comments about Russia, it would seem that it would be hard to keep any secret plan secret anyway.

Schmidt and Cohen offer up their own thesis in their book when, after speaking with Lee Hsien Loong they decide that whatever China tries to do to prevent their citizens from accessing the internet, they will not be able to stop the overwhelming force for good that the internet, in its truest essence, ultimately is:

Events that have occurred since the publication of the book have shown that this thesis is also playing out in China. China has strengthened its control of the internet and of its people, all while the Chinese internet population recently grew to the 700m mark with 100% internet penetration achievable in the near term. Internet freedom in China still seems as distant a dream as ever.

If the Schmidt/Cohen strategy is to let internet freedom naturally unfold in China, then they should retract their claim to ending online censorship now. As China continues to export its censorship technology, and provide upgrades to existing customers, internet freedom is dying a slow death all around the world.

While Google is taking credit for being a champion of internet freedom in the world’s most dangerous places, those who are actually developing the tools that enable internet freedom are under-credited, many underfunded, and some even struggling to survive.

Google cannot profit from its reputation for standing up for ideals if they decide to do nothing to defeat censorship.

We call on Google to deliver a public update on the progress which they are making on ending online censorship everywhere in the world. There are many who are watching what Google does in the internet freedom space. Do not create false hope. If there is no realistic plan for China, then let us and others know that we should not expect anything from Google.

Charlie Smith is a pseudonym. A winner of an Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression award in 2016, he is one of the co-founders of GreatFire.org.

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