THE WAR OF WORDS that Google has been having with Chinese authorities over Internet censorship has been headline news all over the world.
At the last count, the company with the “Don’t Be Evil” motto decided to stop censoring its Google China site by moving its Chinese language search operations to Hong Kong and redirecting Chinese users to that uncensored search engine.
So Google has made its move against Chinese censorship, even if it did take a long time to make the decision for reasons of profit. Most people would agree that it was the right thing to do, but what is the IT community’s wider responsibility in fighting censorship and what westerners might think of as totalitarian regimes?
The battle against Internet censorship has already been waged. Austin Heap, a 26-year old wunderkind hacker from Ohio, created a piece of software called Haystack. Last year this was used by Iranians to run on their computers which encrypted their data, as well as hiding traffic so it looked like they were visiting permitted sites.
It led to communications being opened using methods such as Skype and Twitter without being tracked, and had a major role in organising protests in Iran against what citizens protested were rigged elections.
Speaking at the Digifest event at the Science Museum in London, Heap said that Haystack was created after the analysis of Iran’s systems from a tech standpoint, in terms of what software it used and its limitations.
“That’s possible for every single country. There’s always going to be a limit to the technical ability to censor things," he said.
Companies like Cisco had a lot to answer for, as in the late 90s it provided China with much of the technology to censor its population. There was also an outcry with the fact that Nokia Siemens provided technology to monitor the population of Iran through computers and mobile phones.
But Heap said it was impossible to completely censor the web. “There will always be things like Tor - free software that protects you from network surveillance - and Haystack, that will make it much more difficult to get around any type of real censorship.
“If you’re committed to hiding something in an email, you can hide it. If you’re committed to encrypting something and splitting it into multiple chunks, it is very easy to hide data and get around government protocols.”
But the world is built around liberals and conservatives. For example, an average Inquirer reader might feel that there should be no censorship and the Internet should be free, while the Daily Mail reading mother of three might feel that all porn should be banned in case her kid sees it. It’s all about perspective.
Charles Arthur, technology editor for the Guardian, speaking at the same event said: “If we were sitting in China today we might be saying that censoring search results about Tiananmen Square is really good, because it is all about social cohesion and making people happy about where they are.”
It also begs the question about whether it was right that people like paedophiles, drug smugglers and child traffickers could use this type of technology to hide whatever they might be doing on the web.
Arthur said, “All technologies are neutral. It’s only about how they get used. Something like Tor can be used so that the wrongly oppressed can get their message across, or it can be used by someone who wanted to hide the fact they were looking at a particular site.”
So in terms of software and hardware developers' moral responsibilities, there is nothing good or bad about the technology they create, it’s about people’s use of it.
What will happen in the future? China has been sold technology that has kept a fairly effective if not very efficient information firewall around the country. But what happens if this gets old and hackers find new ways to get around it? What if other tech firm's follow Google's approach and refuse to supply newer technology that is an adequate replacement to enable censorship? Many questions - and only the future will tell.
Information is power. Could Big Brother crumble? µ
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