This week, Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, was quoted as saying during a speech in Washington: “We can end government censorship in a decade. The solution to government surveillance is to encrypt everything.”
Earlier this week, we at greatfire.org successfully unblocked the Reuters Chinese website, which had been blocked on 15 November. We also unblocked the China Digital Times website, which has been blocked in China for years and earlier this month created mirrors for our FreeWeibo project. These mirrors now receive thousands of unique visits a day from China. But we are just a small team of activists with limited resources. If anyone has the power to implement this technology widely, it’s Google. Here’s what they could do to effectively end online censorship in China, not in 10 years, but in just 10 days:
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, but not in China. This would essentially mean that Chinese netizens using Google would be taken to https://www.google.com.hk, the encrypted version of the search engine. The great firewall of China cannot selectively block search results on thousands of sensitive terms if the encrypted version is used.
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 is blocked, Google should redirect the user to a mirrored version of the same website hosted by Google.
That’s it. Two simple steps and Google could 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. Forget about not doing evil – this would be something that we could all celebrate.
Critics of our approach will say that the “do it, they might not block you” argument is tenuous. But that is not what we are saying. What we are saying is: “Google! Do it! If they don’t block you, freedom wins. If they do block you, there will be much more opposition to censorship inside China and the system will be forced to change, thus freedom wins too!”
Is there a better example of a win-win outcome?
We are gambling that Google is big enough and important enough that the Chinese authorities would not dare block it completely. They tried it once before and backed down after a day. They have sometimes made Google services like Gmail excruciatingly difficult to use. But given how essential Google is to so many individuals and businesses, blocking the company entirely would have immediate and disastrous economic consequences.
Our two-step approach is not technically complicated. In the past, we have repeatedly asked Google to make its search engine https by default, but it took Edward Snowden and a bunch of files to make Google do this for the US market.
Every time you click on a Google search result that takes you to a blocked website, Google can detect that the site is blocked. They also have an index of the entire content of the internet. It would be easy for Google to make a change to its search engine, so that when you click on a blocked link, you are redirected to an unblocked version of the page, hosted on an unblockable proxy. Google is already halfway there. Google caches most internet pages and provides them to users. The cache is hosted on a separate domain, which is blocked in China but Google can simply host the cache on a subpath to bypass the block.
It did not take us long to mirror both the Reuters and the China Digital Times websites. The Chinese authorities have not moved to block the three mirrors we have created. The window of opportunity is open for Google to make its move. Google could do what we did in the blink of an eye. We estimate it would take a small team at Google about 10 days of work – but this is Google we are talking about. They could likely do this over late-night tofu pizza.
There must be Google employees who have already proposed doing what we are suggesting. While Schmidt may feel that he needs to speak out to others on causes that he and the co-founders of Google feel are important, he should not lose sight of his company’s own ability to bring about these changes.
• A longer version of this article appears at greatfire.org