Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt foresees more troublesome days ahead between the search engine giant and the governments of the world. Censorship is on the rise around the globe, he said Monday, at a Dublin summit on militant violence that was organized by Google, according to press reports.
How freely information should flow has been a thorny issue for Internet companies dealing with the governments of more restrictive regimes. Several years ago, China’s government demanded that Yahoo turn over the identity of a user who had anonymously posted to the Web materials relating to the Tiananmen Square massacre. The result was the arrest, torture and 10-year jail term of Wang Xiaoning.
Google is no stranger to such pressures. It pulled the plug on its search engine activities in China due to the government’s insistence that it censor certain terms.
The Arab Spring
Such events will step up considerably in the wake of the “Arab Spring” of 2011, Schmidt warned, which resulted in the overthrow of governments in Tunisia and Egypt. The revolts were fueled to a large extent by the widespread use of social media.
Some authoritarian states have taken steps to lock down such activity on the Internet, said Schmidt, and others will inevitably follow suit. Furthermore, Google’s own employees could be caught up in this turmoil, possibly risking arrest or even torture.
Governments are waking up to the fact that the Internet has become as pervasive and as potent as force as television, Schmidt said, noting that in most authoritarian states, TV is highly regulated by officials.
Google did not immediately respond to the E-Commerce Times’ request for comment.
Too Close to Home
It is easy to see why Google is taking a pessimistic view of this issue, considering its own negative experiences with Internet censorship, or at least government overreach, said Jason Wisdom, president and CEO of Wisdom Consulting.
“They have been hacked multiple times,” he told TechNewsWorld. “Their executive, Wael Ghonim, was detained in Egypt for a week, after doing a lot to incite the anti-Mubarak momentum.”
Internet Filters Abound
Censorship on the Internet is not just the domain of restrictive governments, Derek Bambauer, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, told TechNewsWorld.
“Great Britain, France, Germany and South Korea all filter the Internet, and the United States is moving rapidly into doing so, with the domain name seizures by ICE, the PROTECT IP Act, and the ‘voluntary’ graduated response system being pushed by the Obama administration and the content industries,” he pointed out.
Meanwhile, Google just reported that it has complied with 94 percent of government requests for data about users of its services in the U.S. in the second half of 2010 as part of its Transparency Report.
There were roughly 4,600 requests for user data by the U.S. government. Google complied with 72 percent of 1,162 requests made by the UK, and 76 percent of 1,804 requests from Brazil. In Japan, it had a 90 percent compliance rate for the 72 requests made by the government there.
The number of government requests it receives for user account information grows each year, Google noted, although it attributes that to Google’s increasing number of products.
How to Fight
To combat censorship, there are three possible avenues to take, according to Bambauer.
The first is to fight technology with technology: Activists can use proxy servers, virtual private networks, Tor, and other tools to bypass censorship and governmental surveillance.
“The challenge is that these tools can be hard to use, and censoring states are quick to try to block them, resulting in a cat-and-mouse game between security services and demonstrators,” Bambauer said.
The second is to set up unfiltered networks for access. The State Department’s “Internet in a suitcase” effort is part of this tactic, and activists in the Middle East have used everything from satellite access to long-distance phone calls to get around restrictions, Bambauer said.
“The last method is the sneakernet: to smuggle videos, messages, and postings beyond a country’s borders using flash drives, satellite phones, and even donkeys.”
Google’s employees may well be at risk if they live or work in a state that censors the Internet, Bambauer agreed.
“Google’s decision not to locate its .kz servers in Kazakhstan is exactly the sort of prudent response that the company should take to safeguard both freedom of expression and the lives of its employees,” he said.