Posts Tagged ‘Google’

Google’s SSL shift helps schools, China censor search

Monday, July 12th, 2010

In the course of the long-standing Google–China story, one small announcement made many in China happy: Google would offer SSL encryption on standard searches. Now, this security and openness may be threatened, as attempts to access Google Hong Kong’s encrypted service are returning errors from a connection in Beijing.

When SSL became available for standard searches, it was first set up so you would simply type in https:// instead of http:// before accessing Google. This caused a problem for schools and others who restrict the content their users can search for, in many cases because of laws governing school Internet connections. When SSL is enabled on an HTTPS connection, however, filters can’t block based on the words people search for, because even the query is encrypted. Thus schools were faced with having to block the “google.com” domain for their users, something Google did not want.

Therefore, they amended their strategy to create a new address entirely, encrypted.google.com, instead of offering https://google.com. This may seem like a trivial change, but it’s important for several reasons.

First, and this is no small problem, the word “encrypted” is harder to remember for non-English-literate users. Adding an “s” to the protocol was simple and direct.

Second, more importantly, just as this change separated secure search from standard search for schools to discriminate, another kind of firewall and censorship—the system of content filters in China known collectively as the Great Firewall—can discriminate.

As it turns out today, this has come to pass. After Rebecca MacKinnon noted someone was having trouble reaching Google from China, I tried a few things from my connection in Beijing. After some strange behavior, one problem remains consistent: If I type in “encrypted.google.com.hk,” which is the encrypted version of Google’s Chinese-language search product, which is no longer hosted in the Mainland, then I get sent to an error page and a Baidu search for the URL (see screen shot).

What does this mean? Although these things are notoriously uncertain, what appears to be happening is that at least one connection in China has blocked the Chinese-language encrypted search. Thus searches for sensitive terms or searches that return results containing sensitive words stand the chance of being blocked. I tried some famous ones, and they indeed resulted in an error.

Google has made the decision to make censorship easier for schools, in the process making it easier for China. A Chinese system could of course block Google outright, but this would not still be an issue if that was an easy pill to swallow. Google’s e-mail, translation, and other services may not dominate the market in China, but they are popular among many elites and many others.

As of yet, the U.S. site, encrypted.google.com, is loading as normal from Beijing, but this site lacks customizations for Chinese users. If this condition continues, open information just got one step harder to get from inside the GFW.

Are you in China? Can you access these sites? Leave a comment.

White House web guy scolded for contact with Google colleagues, first caught by Google Buzz privacy flaw

Monday, May 17th, 2010

Andrew McLaughlin, deputy White House web chief, was reprimanded for improperly using personal e-mail to consult former colleagues at Google, The Hill reported today. He apparently consulted Vint Cerf among others on issues including network neutrality, and used his personal Gmail account in violation of a pledge he signed.

The White House requires staffers to use official e-mail for all business to ease compliance with rules requiring the maintenance of presidential record. The fun part, though, is that this was apparently first noticed because of the much-discussed privacy flaw embedded in Google Buzz at the time of its sudden release that revealed frequent contacts.

This goes to show that it’s not just activists in authoritarian countries who could get into political trouble because of privacy slips. Here’s Tony Romm on how it happened.

Concern that McLaughlin may have violated federal archiving and ethics rules first arose in April, upon the debut of Google Buzz. The new social network, which automatically adds a user’s recent contacts to his or her subscriber list, reflected that McLaughlin had communicated in the past with top Google staffers.

The link was not totally surprising, given McLaughlin’s previous position as Google’s head of global public policy.

But after seeing McLaughlin’s contacts on Google Buzz, Consumer Watchdog filed a FOIA request for his e-mails, and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) questioned McLaughlin’s conduct in his own, separate missive.

Google China chatter collected

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

Photo of flowers at Google Beijing headquarters by Junyu Wang (王俊煜) used under Creative Commons license.

I spent the night thinking that I would write something about Google’s decision on China, and it seems my blogging spirit has eroded since the days of Sinobyte. If in the end I have something to offer, you’ll hear about it, but for now, I think the most useful thing is to look at what others have said. In no particular order, here’s a tab dump.

  • Google’s Threat Echoed Everywhere, Except China from The New York Times‘ Andy Jacobs, Miguel Helft, and John Markoff: The news of Google’s announcement was predictably closely regulated on Chinese news sites.
  • U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a statement indicating that on the issue of incursions into business or activist information, “We look to the Chinese government for an explanation.”
  • Rebecca MacKinnon writes in the Wall Street Journal that Google has gotten on the right side of history and will be rewarded when an event like the fall of the Berlin Wall opens the past to analysis companies’ roles in censorship.
  • MacKinnon also notes that she believes Google “has done the right thing.”
  • Ethan Zuckerman sees four ways to read Google’s decision: (1) Google decided to stop being evil and responded to criticism that its adherence to Chinese government standards was damaging. (2) Google retreated from a rough market, where it was struggling to gain market share against Baidu. (3) Google abandoned Chinese users, who had come to depend on the service. (4) Google is about to join the front lines of the anti-censorship wars, which would likely be necessary if it is to maintain any Chinese user base despite a likely block by Internet authorities.
  • Google believes the network breaches were state sponsored, reports Robert McMillan at MacWorld. The story focuses on elements of state-sponsored corporate espionage and includes some anonymous quotes that suggest Google has been dealing with this since late December.
  • Michael Anti tells BBC he supports Google’s decision. (I can’t listen to this just now, because I am in a library.)
  • Evgeny Morozov is skeptical of Google’s motivations: “Are we really supposed to believe that, until they experienced cyberattacks on the email accounts of the Chinese human rights activists, they thought that their counterparts in the Chinese government were all good and well-meaning chaps who would never think of such a thing?” He argues that it seems more plausible that Google wanted to get out of a bad market and wrapped the decision in human rights-related PR copy.
  • Based on a classified FBI report, the Daily Beast’s Gerald Posner puts the news in the context of a Chinese cyber threat.
  • Junyu Wang has nice photographs of the pseudo-vigil outside Google’s office at Wudaokou in Beijing.
  • Dharmishta has a round-up of early reactions that covers several angles noted here and several others.
  • Sarah Lacy at TechCrunch: “Google has clearly decided doing business in China isn’t worth it, and are turning what would be a negative into a marketing positive for its business in the rest of the world.”
  • James Fallows sees this development as a transition in China’s leadership to a “Bush-Cheney era,” by which he means the country’s government is turning into one “much of the world [sees] as deliberately antagonizing them.” He also argues that “In terms of information flow into China, this decision probably makes no real difference at all,” because most users aren’t going for restricted information, and those who want it know how to get around blocks.
  • Imagethief, coming at the announcement from a corporate PR angle, sees the Google announcement as the total abandonment of a strategy shared by many foreign businesses in China whereby they attempt to align themselves with the government in order to avoid problems and access the Chinese market.
  • Danwei’s regular feature looking at the top story in a Chinese newspaper reminds us that in other big China search engine news, Baidu was hacked yesterday.
  • Nart Villeneuve, an Internet security expert and lead author of the 2008 report on the GhostNet cyber-espionage attacks, says this news should reminds us: “The nexus of censorship, surveillance and malware attacks allows China is the key to China’s information control policies. It is not just about the GFW.” He also says he hopes Microsoft and Yahoo will follow Google on this.
  • Blake Hounshell at Foreign Policy puts the move in the context of increased U.S.–China tensions in 2010.
  • Jonathan Zittrain anticipates that if Google pulls down its China-based operations, it may be well positioned to develop circumvention methods to provide access to Google despite government restrictions.

Most likely, I’ll have more to say on this soon. I think over all the interpretations out there make sense. Ethan’s point that there are many ways to look at the decision I think shows that this was no simple decision. The Macworld story mentions that top Google officials met on Christmas Eve to figure out what to do. For at least three weeks now, this decision has been on the minds of some of the leaders of the industry.

It’s interesting to note, too, that this comes amidst a general turn to negativity in U.S. media on China. Following the COP15 meeting, a dominant narrative had China as the spoiler (this after the media got done lambasting the White House for failing). Beginning with Paul Krugman’s op-ed on the currency problem, there has been a set of accusations that China is the problem in the U.S. economy. This news, and the news on China’s newest missile tests, have taken the environment and economy confrontations and added corporate and national security elements, as well as reviving human rights narratives.

For someone who watches events closely, I must say the Google news is big. The general tone of antagonism toward China, however, does not seem to be based in any new developments other than a change in the conventional wisdom in newsrooms and chattering classes. It’s an open question whether antagonistic rhetoric in this situation reflects an existing antagonism or fuels a new one.

U.S. Justice Department opposes Google Books settlement

Sunday, September 20th, 2009

Wired reports: “The Justice Department, citing anti-trust and copyright concerns, asked a federal court judge late Friday to reject a controversial settlement that would have allowed Google to cut through knotty copyright issues in order to create the library of the future.”

The Justice Department’s concerns mirror some of the sentiments expressed by Harvard law professor John Palfrey when a seminar last spring took up the settlement. As the wiki record of that week notes, Palfrey suggested improvements to the settlement that would allow the immensely valuable resource to come into existence without hurting the prospects for future innovation.

Professor Palfrey suggests three generalized improvements to the settlement that would begin to address many of the concerns that have been raised:

  • Ensure the possibility of a meaningful competitive landscape, such that second-comers are not barred from success.
  • Establish a means by which the public can have a meaningful level of control over the workings of the Book Rights Registry.
  • Create a system of periodic review for the settlement terms. This system would not need to involve periodic wholesale review of the entire settlement by the courts; it could instead merely involve libraries negotiating sunset provisions for individual works with publishers, authors, and other rights holders.

As a researcher, I have already found the Google Books machinery to be of great use. I have used it to access sources I did not have space to bring along while studying in Beijing last summer. I have used the full-text search available for some texts to double-check citations when preparing papers. And I have been able to point friends and family to specific passages of books without scanning or retyping the text by hand.

My additional hope is that the restrictive provisions in the settlement that regulate how the data can be used can be avoided at the library terminals that form part of the public good derived from Google’s gargantuan scanning project. If the vast amount of information being gathered can be processed in yet unforeseen ways, computation-based research may reveal hidden value in a corpus of text. If we are restricted to search and display applications that replicate traditional reading, however, we will still fall short of the potential this information holds.