Google Takes On Chinese Censorship, Plans To Encrypt All Searches Globally

CREDIT: Flickr/Bfishadow

The Great Firewall may have just been scaled: China will no longer be able to block certain websites and search terms now that Google has begun encrypting searches in the country.

The move is part of Google’s global expansion plan to close loopholes that allow government intelligence agencies, law enforcement, and even hackers, to see users’ Internet activity. As a result, China’s website censoring system won’t be able to detect when users search for banned or politically charged content, such as “Tiananmen Square.”

News of Google’s global encryption project comes on the heels of comments this week from the Web’s creator, Tim Berner-Lee and former NSA contractor turned whistleblower Edward Snowden who called on users to keep the Internet free and open for everyone. Snowden’s comments on Monday at the SXSW conference in Austin went a step further than Lee’s when he encouraged tech companies to use encryption to protect users from government surveillance.

Google’s global encryption rollout will cripple several countries’ ability, such as Saudi Arabia and Vietnam, to pinpoint users who are searching for banned terms or posting forbidden content. The only other recourse is to block the search site entirely.

“This is the final step in the process,” Peter Eckersley, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s technology projects director told ThinkProgress. Google started its quest to encrypt searches in 2010 when it allowed users to manually type in “https” instead of “http” before the Web address. It’s a small change, but it’s “going to make it vastly more difficult for spies — NSA, Chinese government or Iranian government — to see what people are searching for on Google,” Eckersley said.

Global encryption automatically inserts “https” in the website link, blocking anyone from seeing the content on that page. Only the domain name in the browser is visible, Eckersley said. Also, with global encryption, you can’t censor certain sites or phrases. The only choices are to let all content flow through or block all of it.

The new plan will just add to the years-long censorship battle the company has had with China. Last year, Google seemingly conceded defeat when it stopped showing an anti-censorship warning message that alerted Chinese users that the information they were searching for was blocked and disrupted their Internet connection.

In September, Chinese officials tightened their censorship efforts by criminalizing posting derogatory remarks on blogs and online forums. Violators could face up to three years in jail if the negative posts attracted at least 5,000 page views or were shared more than 500 times.

But the sheer vastness of the Internet that’s constantly — and rapidly — changing makes attempts to filter Web content ultimately futile. The only way to combat that is to have a government constantly engaged in employing censorship. And the more the Webexpands, the more censorship gets worse: Almost half of the countries observed increased Internet restrictions over the course of a past year, according to a 2012 survey published by Freedom House, a human rights watchdog group.

However, such active censorship is bound to fail because Internet freedom is directly tied to a country’s pursuit of upward mobility and economic growth, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt told Foreign Policy. “The natural next question is when [will China change], and no one knows the answer to that question. [But] in a long enough time period, do I think that this kind of regime approach will end? I think absolutely.”