Sunday, January 17, 2010


So Google ditched China this week, and the question of the day is clearly why.  No one really  knows, which makes it all the more fun to speculate.  Here are some ideas; I'm particularly fond of the last one.

Hal Roberts, John Palfrey and I published a study of tools designed to subvert and circumvent internet censorship a few months back, based on research we conducted over the course of three years. In the course of that research, we ended up with a simple realization about the design of censorship circumvention software:

A robust anti-censorship system has, at minimum, three components:
- Lots of non-contiguous IP addresses, making it difficult for censors to block the entry points into the system
- Huge amounts of bandwidth that can access the public internet, as a censorship circumvention system is basically an ISP
- Multiple methods to feed fresh IP addresses to your users

This isn't a complete definition, of course – good anticensorship systems use SSL encryption to prevent keyword blocking, but that's a solved problem. The three components above tend to be very hard for small anti-circumvention projects to solve. It's very hard to obtain lots and lots of IP addresses, and very expensive to provision sufficient bandwidth… unless you're Google, in which case, these obstacles should be trivial. There's still lots of work that needs to be done ensuring that users of circumvention systems get fresh IP addresses, but a Google-backed anticensorship system (perhaps operated in conjunction with some of the smart activists and engineers who've targeted censorship in Iran and China?) would be massively more powerful (and threatening!) than the systems we know about today.

These tools would have a built-in market – the millions of users who were enjoying Google's tools from within China – and could radically change the landscape of the internet freedom field. An emphasis on internet freedom tools would allow Google to engage with a smaller Chinese market, but would allow them to maintain a toe in the waters while maintaining a stance of disengagement with the Chinese government.

Now, no one knows if this is what's up here.  It would be a big move.  So big, in fact, that I think it it's a mistake to say that it would be aimed at China.  Google is smart enough to see that at some point, the governments of the world are going to get way way more involved in the regulation of the internet.  China already has, and they won't suddenly stop.  If anything, I worry that instead of the web opening up China, China is merely the first to turn the tap off on the web.   If we make it to the 2020 without major intervention in Europe and the US, I will be amazed.  And let me just assert without proof that when this happens the internet will get much worse.  It will become like TV cut up into bite sized chunks (pun intended) and auctioned off to those who can afford it.  Imagine what will happen when you need a license to have a url, or a blog, or to upload a youtube video.  We will auction the cybercommons, and I fear the same thing will happen to us that happened to Argentina (my favorite example of programmed decadence) when they auctioned the great open prairies to the English.

Or maybe we won't. 

What if the dominant player foresees this possibility and aligns its business with the openness of the web?  What if they decided that they were going to pre-emptively regulate the territory in their own way, in way that put it outside the reach of the governments that would wish to control and milk it? 

Make no mistake, this would not be a purely ideological move -- the US government takes home more than a third of my pay, and there's not much of anything I can do about the extortion; that's some serious pricing power.  Being the government could be big business.  Being the US or Chinese government is already big business, and we need to lose the absurd opposition between these two forces that bedevils so much of our political thinking.  And if the government is a business, why can't we give it some competition?  If the government consolidates, won't it's competitors need to consolidate according to the same logic of countervailing power that you can see illustrated in so many other industries? 

Maybe Google intends to become an extra-governmental force.  Maybe they are big and canny enough to do this.  Maybe we should welcome this monopoly with open arms.  If the US government is so broken, maybe we should quit trying to reform it and just replace it, or at least build a new one that sits uneasily alongside it.  Maybe we would rather be regulated by Google than by one nation under God.

No comments: