Activists to Google: You could end Chinese internet censorship in 10 days

Filed Under: Featured, Google

Image of Great Wall of China courtesy of ShutterstockGoogle Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt said recently that encrypting everything can end government censorship in a decade.

To hell with 10 years, says anti-censorship group GreatFire.org - Google could do it in 10 days, and the group is happy to show how.

GreatFire knows whereof it speaks.

It recently threw bricks through the Great Firewall of China, the world's most censored state.

It did it by putting up copies of censored sites - known as mirror sites - hosted by Amazon Web Services.

The mirrors successfully unblocked Reuters' Chinese website (blocked since 15 November) and the China Digital Times website (blocked for years after having once created mirrors for GreatFire's FreeWeibo project, which offers uncensored and anonymous Sina Weibo search).

The mirrors didn't take 10 years to work; they were effectively "almost immediately," GreatFire writes, so it's a no-brainer that Google could get it done quickly:

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.

It takes two simple steps, GreatFire says.

From its post:

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.

Perhaps it is as easy as that.

But as Naked Security's John Hawes notes, treating mirrored sites as the real thing has its dangers.

Websites that look right but have fishy URLs are a traditional warning sign that crooks might be luring web surfers onto a dangerous site where they could be in store for malware infection or other cyber attacks.

Neither option is optimal: we have on one hand a state of censorship that cuts Chinese netizens off from the world, and on the other hand we have the possibility of proliferating mirrored sites that could be traps set by criminals.

What do you think? Is mirroring the answer, and should Google take on the onus, as GreatFire suggests?

Image of Great Wall of China courtesy of Shutterstock.

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12 Responses to Activists to Google: You could end Chinese internet censorship in 10 days

  1. Anonymous · 146 days ago

    The really sticky thing at issue here is the law. Even if the majority of the world believes that a regime is in the wrong, doing as suggested would still be illegal unless back/legitimized by a political body like the UN. If a company just flat violated the law of a country in which it was operating, the employees of that company better not set foot in that country or any country that has and extradition treaty with it. That is how we operate in the U.S. and UK, so it should be no surprise to find China operating in the same way. That said, I hate censorship and if we could find a legal way to levy this kind of activity as a politically-backed "sanction", that could be fascinating....

  2. Cynthia · 146 days ago

    I believe in freedom. To live, work and connect to the world of internet anywhere.

  3. Jack Wilborn · 146 days ago

    Maybe it's worth the risk of having unscrupulous people get at your data to make the country free(er) than it is now. I would vote for this, knowing that it's better than censorship, at least at the beginning. It would be a feather in Google's hat to help free the Internet in China. We pay so much money to them and they do not live up to our standards of compassion and trust. We should all be for this... IMHO..

    Jack

  4. Larry M · 146 days ago

    I'm leery of the intersection of business and politics. Google should leave this issue to Greatfire. Greatfire should develop the technology to proxy the original websites rather than mirror them so they retain their dynamic quality.

  5. Dan · 146 days ago

    Mirroring has many problems, and expecting Google to take on both the social and financial responsibility of providing these mirrors and keeping them updated is somewhat unrealistic. Unfortunately, even if they did do all of these things, it would not work. China has outright blocked Google before, there is nothing preventing them from doing it again. Most likely the sole reason Google has not already gone to HTTPS only in China like in other regions is that they have probably been warned that doing so will result in a total blockage of Google and all Google services. It would be both a huge boost to other search engines like Bing and Yahoo and a very large warning shot to everyone else.
    Unfortunately, as nice and simple as the plan is, it is fundamentally unworkable unless every single major search engine does the same thing. And even if they did, China could simply create their own search engine that they redirected all requests to.

    • Hearth · 145 days ago

      We must also remember that teh largest, most popular search engine in China is NOT Google, but Baidu - a chinese company.

      I agree that Google doing this themselves would be a very temporary solution at best. At worst may cause them to be blocked and drive more traffic to Baidu and other "internal" search providers that fall under Chinese control (which means Chinese government control) and will likely make the censorship issues worse in the long run.

  6. NoSpin1600 · 146 days ago

    As with most things that were designed for the good there will be those who misuse it. While mirrored sites in this instance would be a good thing, it won't be long before criminals take advantage of another revenue stream.

  7. Guy · 146 days ago

    I've long held that you can't use technology to fix social problems. If you want to use technology as a tool to support your own social endeavours, that's one thing, but using technology to change other people is surely risky at best - and that's when you are dealing with individuals, or small groups, not totalitarian governments. Take K9 and Covenant Eyes, both great pieces of software for a person wanting to keep an eye on his own web browsing, but try inflicting that kind of thing on your kids, and surely you are inviting them to find a way around it. It seems like the NSA may be learning the same lesson on a grand scale. Technology absolutely has a place as a tool, but while tools can support social initiatives, it's very rare to hear of a piece of technology creating one. In this case, I don't believe that you can't fight dictatorship and censorship just with HTTPS, I believe that to be successful, the change has to start in Beijing.

  8. Berze · 145 days ago

    Lol. That would only end in google being blocked in china, and sino-american relations to falter. Who will gain profit from that ?

  9. Hearth · 145 days ago

    I could see this easily becoming a giant walled garden. Once Google started down this road, who is to say they wouldn't serve up their copies/versions of websites to all users, injected with google scripts/advertising/whatever. You would only see the internet as Google wanted to show you.

    As mentioned in an earlier comment, a proxy solution would be far superior. Encrypt and obfuscate the users requests, but send them ultimately to their intended destination. There are plenty of options available for this already, Tor/VPNs etc., which are becomming more widely available to mainstream users. This is the path that should be followed as it also increases the users security as well as privacy, without adding additional unnecessary risks, or placing too much reliance/responsibility on any one privately owned organisation.

    • Hearth · 145 days ago

      I should add, however, that I do support the idea that Google default to all requests being encrypted over HTTPS. This is a first step, and at least protects the users search, if not the resulting site visit.

      In this age of modern high-end processors there is no real reason for any site not to always be SSL/TLS encrypted - many issues would be resolved by this.

  10. wac · 136 days ago

    the problem here would be china governemnt blocking google itself.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.