Iranian Protesters

Iranian Protesters

If you’ve been paying any attention to the news over the last two days, you’ll undoubtedly have heard breathy congratulation for how the protesters in Iran have used new media like Twitter and Facebook to circumvent the Iranian government’s shutdown of SMS (text) messageing, BBC Persia, and (briefly before the election) Facebook.

You probably also have heard that China’s patchwork internet firewall and monitoring system is fairly easy to circumvent via a simple proxy-server. Here’s a post on how to do just that.

On a more personal note, the high school where I recently finished teaching had web filtering software to block pornography sites, Facebook, and other “non academic” sites. Having proctored the computer lab many, many times, I can tell you that the students have easily figured out how to get around all of these restrictions.

Clearly, the efforts of Iran and China (and possibly others I don’t know about) to “protect” its citizens from some areas or avenues of information don’t work terribly well. Thanks mostly to the internet, stopping communication when it really wants to happen is like the levees during Katrina trying to hold back Late Pontchartrain.

Sure, these “protective” measures do work to some extent. Some say that today’s (Tuesday) information coming out of Iran is far less than that of yesterday due to an increase in Iran’s restrictive measures. Undoubtedly, China’s firewall does hinder some people’s access to information.

Nevertheless, if you’re a government launching a censorship campaign, you better be damn sure it’s pretty airtight, since the stigma of censorship in the eyes of Western countries is pretty high, and it foments frustration in its own (younger, more tech-savy) population. Short of banning the internet outright, I can’t really see how a government could effectively stifle subversive organization and/or access to information.

If I were a repressive state, I’d give up on censorship and go instead for (non-state run) propaganda and controlling the apparatus of education. Iran and China (and others) also employ this form of opinion molding and would do well to concentrate their efforts in this area, which is a bit harder for an outside to show is rigged.

As the internet becomes even more the dominant form of communication, our global interconnectedness will only increase in the future. At some point, these governments must realize that restricting this access to information only undermines their credibility and viability both within and without their borders. It will be interesting to see how long it takes them to figure this fact out.


in Google we trust…

May 29, 2009

Let me start by setting the record straight: I love Google. I like the meritocratic culture of its hiring, the promotion of creativity and side projects among its employees, and, most of all, its trend-settings, intuitive, and just plain useful suite of products. I appreciate what it’s trying to do with cloud computing and cutting the tether to the operating system (i.e. NOT what Microsoft is doing). I rely on my Gmail, Google Reader, Google Calendar, to name only a few.

And yet…my distrust of large concentrations of power, especially over the flow of information has recently made me think twice about Google. Ultimately, they’re a company, just like any other, at the end of the day responsible to their shareholders now that they’ve gone public. As I see it, two main dangers exist in our placing so much trust in them:

1) Google decides to censor search results a la China. This means that certain sites would be inaccessible through Google. “Crazy,” you say, “Google would never do that. It would ruin their ‘don’t be evil’ equity.” I’d like to think so too, but really?….What if there were a terrorist attack whose organization could be traced to some websites. What if the U.S. government asks/forces Google to resist accessibility. Could/would Google really say no?

I suppose if Google does acquiesce to external censorship pressure, other search engines might eventually take its place as its reputation drops (or not, depending on the zeitgeist at the time). But a much more troubling scenario (and much more likely), is the elimination of people’s individual Google Accounts.

2) If Google decides you’re a persona non grata, as they have for numerous people, what do you do then? All your email, especially bad if it includes business email, is now inaccessible. Not only can you no longer communicate with anyone (sure you could open a different email account, but do you really remember all of the necessary email addresses?), but you can’t access any of your old emails, and we all know how important the Gmail’s search function is. What if Google (or again, a shadowy government official) decides you’re a terrorist because you gave some money to some Muslim charities? What would you do? I’d send some emails and call them, but ultimately, they can ignore me if they’d like.

Am I being paranoid? Yes. But in our world of increasingly efficient–which often means centralized–communication, a healthy dose of paranoia is important. It doesn’t seem that hard for you or your organization to be “disappeared.” I still like Google a good deal and certainly plan to keep using their applications, but I’ll have my eyes open.