NY Times Room For Debate – Can Google Beat China

More Than a Tech Problem

For years, innovative solutions to sidestep Internet filters have plagued Internet censors. Rebellious kids, hoping to sneak a peek around parental controls, have come up with some of the best of these ideas. Others are highly sophisticated open-source systems tended to by brainy PhD.’s and caffeine-fueled programmers.

Will Google now devote some of its formidable engineering resources to the problem of censorship circumvention? Will the people behind Google mail, Google wave and Google docs bring us something like Google Free? Surely a company as powerful as Google can invent an app that guarantees Internet freedom.

The problem is that circumventing Internet censorship is at least as much a social and political problem now as it is technological. And that’s because the nature of controls exercised in this domain are changing.

As documented by the OpenNet Initiative, cyberspace controls are evolving from technical filtering of Web requests to a variety of next-generation methods that are more subtle and offensive in nature. These methods can involve the imposition of stringent terms-of-use policies that stifle freedom of speech to informal pressures on Internet service providers to remove information or turn over user data they collect. More insidiously, they can include the outsourcing of computer network attacks on threatening sources of information or the use of cyberespionage systems of the type we found in Ghostnet, and which have plagued Google and other companies in recent weeks.

These next-generation controls are effective precisely because they do not rely on a single technological filter that can be overcome by the latest app. They create a social and political climate of risk, intimidation and fear. Social and political controls like these require social and political solutions.

Does this mean Google has no role to play in keeping the Internet free and open? Certainly it can make a contribution. Taking a principled stand and encouraging other companies to follow suit is a good start, as would be the donation of some of its engineering time to censorship circumvention.

But what is required today goes beyond what a single company can achieve, even one as vast and influential as Google. We need a worldwide movement involving citizens and policymakers to protect the Internet as an open global source of information. The onus is on all of us.

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