Google could combat China’s censorship efforts by helping those within China breach the so-called Great Firewall. As with buildings in the physical world, every location on the Internet has an address associated with it—an Internet protocol, or IP, address. In addition to filtering certain keywords, the administrators of the Great Firewall maintain a huge list of blocked IP addresses. Circumvention tools send a user to an unblocked address, then pipe in all outside information through that “proxy” IP address. Yet at any time, this tunnel could collapse. “One of these IP addresses could last forever, or for months, or for minutes” before the authorities find it and block it, says Hal Roberts, an expert in circumvention tools at the Berkman Center.
Hence, any large-scale circumvention effort requires a huge number of addresses to cycle through, along with an enormous amount of bandwidth to support all the tunneling. “If we could magically convince all Chinese people to use [these services],” Roberts says, “then someone would have to pay for the entire outgoing bandwidth of China.” That might strain Google’s resources, but not by much.
Still, there are good reasons for Google not to start this kind of proxy war. Promoting a free and open Internet is one thing; actively undermining the laws of a sovereign nation is another. Moreover, these same circumvention tools also work as anonymity tools—anyone can use proxy servers to hide their true identity. “This makes them very useful for all kinds of bad activities,” Roberts says. “They could be used to hack Google’s servers or for attacks against Google services using click fraud and spam. So there’s a strong question from Google’s point of view whether it is in their best interest to promote them.”
No matter what course the standoff takes in the months and years to come, it has brought into focus this battle for control over how unrestricted the Internet should be. Right now users depend on companies such as Google to defend the Internet from forces—governmental and otherwise—that would exert more top-down control over it. That may not be enough.