Google, Guardian of Political Dissent?

July 12, 2012

China & GoogleGoogle’s relationship with the Chinese government has long been a rocky one.  China has been an important component of Google’s growth strategy. 

At the same time, however, the company has engaged in a series of disputes with Chinese authorities involving a range of issues, including allegations of Chinese government sponsored breaches of Google system security and user privacy.

Those disputes led Google, for a time, to suspend its operations in China.

Although Google is once again operating in China, the company has recently taken steps that are likely to draw significant criticism from the government of China.

The Google actions in China also present an intriguing possibility for future opportunities to enhance Internet user privacy with respect to government monitoring.

In recent weeks, Google began warning its users in China of Internet search words that are likely to lead to censorship by Chinese authorities.  The Chinese government routinely blocks access to Internet content it deems to be objectionable.

When users attempt to access a blocked Web site, they commonly receive on-screen messages indicating that the content is unavailable or some other message indicating operational error.

When users conduct a Google search and attempt to access the resulting Web site links, they often temporarily lose their connection to Google.

Online material for which access is now reportedly blocked includes information regarding Chinese government leaders and political dissidents in China, as well as social media sites, such as Twitter and Facebook.

The new Google system provides an on-screen alert when a user is conducting a search involving a blocked search word or phrase.

The alert indicates that Google continuously reviews the outcomes of searches conducted using its system, and those reviews indicate that the selected search term is likely to result in an error message and temporary loss of the Google connection.

Chinese authorities treat the search terms they restrict as national secrets, thus there is no publicly available list of Internet sites that are blocked.

Through its new system, Google is, in effect, identifying that list.

Google also recently launched a system which warns users of its “Gmail” electronic mail service when government authorities have attempted to access the users’ accounts.

The Google warnings do not specify which governments have attempted to access the material.

Additionally, Google has not publicly described how it is able to identify the government access attempts.

These Google initiatives seem to be directed primarily toward Chinese authorities, which is not surprising given the history of the company’s relationship with the Chinese government.

The actions are likely to complicate Google’s position in China.

Although the Chinese aspects of Google’s actions are significant, the future potential impact of these two Google programs could extend well beyond China.

In principle, the search censorship warning system could seemingly be applied to alert users in all nations where online censorship is conducted.  Additionally, it appears that the second Google program, the “Gmail” alert system, is already monitoring access by all governments.

If Google continues, and perhaps extends, these efforts, the company’s relationships with governments around the world will likely become much more challenging.

Those efforts would also, however, provide important support for personal privacy, political dissent, and transparency in government around the globe, a major contribution which is desperately needed.