'Running battle': How Google hopes to beat countries cracking down on Internet freedom

Google hopes a little browser tool will
help change the world.
The company that revolutionized
Internet search is now unveiling a sort
of online underground tunnel — a way
for people in restrictive countries like
Iran and Syria to get around digital
censorship and surveillance.
The idea behind the tool — essentially
a button for browsers — called
uProxy, is simple: People in countries
such as the United States provide their
trusted friends a secure connection so
that they can see and use the
unrestricted Internet.
Google showed it off earlier this week
at a conference called “Conflict in a
Connected World.” Google also rolled
out technology to map cyberattacks
around the world, including by
repressive governments.
The innovations, from a division of the
company called Google Ideas, come at
a time when the Internet, and social
media in particular, is playing an
increasing role in popular upheaval
around the world, most notably in the
Middle East.
Ebrahim Noroozi / AP file
Iranians surf the Internet at a cafe i
Tehran, Iran, on Sept, 17, 2013. The j
Iran's Facebook and Twitter fans wa
short-lived as authorities restored
on social networks after filters were
lifted for several hours overnight. T
brief access was a "technical glitch"
was quickly rectified, according to
communications official Abdolsama
Khoramabadi, from the board overs
Internet in Iran.
“These are going to be useful additions
to the activist toolkit,” said Philip
Howard, a professor at the University
of Washington who has written about
the impact of social media on political
change.
“Authoritarian governments have
started figuring out how to use social
media to spy on activists and control
political conversation,” he said. “Any
new tool that lets people network with
family and friends in a secure way is
likely to have a political impact.”
In the two-year civil war in Syria,
efforts by opponents of President
Bashar Assad to inform the world were
met by “unrelenting online repression,”
according to the free-information
group Reporters Without Borders.
Iran has intensified surveillance and
jammed Internet lines during periods
of unrest. China has censored touchy
keywords , including “democracy” and
“human rights.” Similar but smaller
repression took place during uprisings
in Egypt and Tunisia.
And just in June, Turkey tightened its
grip on Twitter, which it accused of
helping people spread lies about the
government and terrorize society. It
also sought to target “provocateurs” on
social media, without giving details.
The uProxy tool essentially provides a
mask for dissidents. They can establish
a secure connection with someone
across the world, in a free-Internet
country, whom they trust, and read
and post online without surveillance or
blocking.
Chinese citizens already use similar
connections to get around what is
known as the Great Firewall — the
government’s blocking of much of the
Western Internet, including social
media sites.
Google calls its way “a safer path to the
Internet.” David Drummond, a senior
vice president at the company, told
the conference Monday that Google
“was founded on the belief that access
to information is a social good.”
“More information in more hands
means more education, more
economic opportunity, more
accountability,” he said. “Access, in
short, is good. And it’s why the
Internet’s so freeing.”
In an initiative called Project Shield,
Google is also offering to host websites
that come under politically motivated
shutdown attacks. That initiative is still
in testing but has already been
endorsed by a popular Persian-
language news website.
Google, a company with a market value
north of one-third of a trillion dollars,
says it’s about free expression, not a
business interest — in fact the projects
are targeted toward many countries
under economic sanctions.
It’s an interesting move because
Google, at least its Ideas division, “sees
censorship as Internet damage and
wants to route around it,” said Danny
O’Brien, executive director of the
Electronic Frontier Foundation, a
nonprofit digital rights group.
The drawback is that it may lead
countries to target Google more
explicitly, he said.
The tool deliberately avoids Google
servers, he said — individual
computers act as the middlemen,
getting packets of information from
repressive countries like Iran and
China out to the world.
“But if you put a big Google label on a
service like this, you might expect to
get blowback,” said O'Brien.
A Google spokeswoman declined
comment on this concern.
Howard, from the University of
Washington, cautioned that getting
around Internet censorship is not as
simple as building a virtual tunnel.
Whether Google’s ideas have an equal
impact in all repressive regimes
remains to be seen, he said.
The Chinese government, for example,
has negotiated special treatment from
search companies before, and has
plenty of money and power to build its
own Internet tools. And Russia has
poured money into keeping the
Internet from being free there.
During the Arab Spring, he said, “We
saw how a handful of democracy
advocates could use digital media to
catch dictators off-guard.” But it
wasn’t long before governments
figured out how to use social media
for surveillance and censorship.
“It’s a running battle,” he said.
Sheldon Himelfarb, director of the
PeaceTech initative at the United States
Institute of Peace, a nonprofit created
by Congress to prevent conflict
abroad, surveyed the reaction from
activists online and said it was positive
— “a lot of excitement tempered by
mistrust.”
He cited the uproar over National
Security Agency surveillance programs
and doubts about whether the Google
initiatives could further open the door
for the United States to gather
information.
While it’s important to remember the
risks that come with the new
technology, he said, he believes it
looks like “good news for Internet
freedom.”