Should Google take on China’s censorship machine single-handedly? That seems to be the cry from a non-profit anti-censorship group that’s appealing to Eric Schmidt and the Internet search giant he chairs.
Charlie Smith, co-founder of GreatFire.org, is calling on Schmidt to make good on his words in a Nov. 20 speech in Washington. Bloomberg quoted him declaring, “We can end government censorship in a decade. The solution to government surveillance is to encrypt everything.”
San Diego’s Daily Transcript reported that Schmidt 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 United States. “You cannot stop it if it’s a good idea broadly held,” Schmidt said. “That’s how China will change.”
The Great Firewall of China
“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,” Smith wrote in a blog post. “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, Smith continued, 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 U.S. quickly after the NSA revelations, he noted, but not in China where users are not only monitored but thousands of keywords are blocked altogether.
Smith’s specific suggestion: Google needs to switch its China search engine to HTTPS by default like it has done in the U.S. and other markets. That would essentially mean Chinese Internet users who visit Google.com.hk would be taken to an encrypted version of the search engine that would prevent the “great firewall of China” from selectively blocking search results on thousands of sensitive terms, Smith said.
Calling China’s Bluff
Further, if the Web site that a user tries to visit from the search results on Google is blocked in the country that the user is in, Smith wants Google to redirect the user to a mirrored version of the same Web site Google hosts.
“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,” Smith said. “Forget about not doing evil -- this would be something that we could all celebrate.”
Does Smith's argument have legs? We asked Greg Sterling, principal analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence, for his thoughts on the anti-censorship group’s suggestions. He told us he can’t comment on the technical aspects, however if the recommendation is accurate he thinks it's an interesting and worthy challenge.
“Perhaps Google fears being totally ousted from the Chinese market and is hesitant to call the Chinese government's bluff,” Sterling said. “It would be a strong and courageous move for Google to shift to HTTPS, however. And the company, if it truly disagrees with Chinese censorship, should take the risk. But the risk is potentially significant in being shut out of China.”