It also relates to a recent scoop about a new Google product that’s designed to make it easier for developers to build censorship-resistant apps. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: this is a space worth paying attention to.
Questions about who gets to control the internet and who gets access to online information are central to the future of our world. They have ramifications for geopolitics, free speech, national security, political organizing, human rights, equity, and power distribution in general. And I promise, it’s not as niche, or as simplistic, as you may think.
We’re in the midst of a quiet technological arms race between the censors and those trying to evade them. Lots of people are already aware of China’s Great Firewall and the digital ice age in North Korea, but over the past two years, we’ve seen interesting developments in censorship in Russia, especially related to the war on Ukraine, and in Iran, during the latest wave of pro-democracy protests last fall.
To make matters worse, authoritarian regimes are increasingly learning from each other. They can share and copy each others’ censorship tactics more quickly than ever before. As a result, internet censorship is now being wielded as a political weapon in countries all over the world, even including democracies. And as people grow more dependent on digital tools and platforms, the harm done by online censorship becomes more serious.
Developers of technologies that can help to circumvent censorship, like VPNs, traffic disguisers, and anonymity and encryption tools, are constantly trying to keep up with changes in tactics. During times of internet crackdowns, censors and circumventors get into a “cat-and-mouse” game, where censors move to block access in a particular way, and circumventors work on finding technical solutions to by-pass the blocking. The game continues and often escalates.
But Roya Ensafi, a professor of computer science at the University of Michigan, says the majority of censorship fighters “lack the necessary technical means to develop and deploy circumvention capabilities” that can withstand the evolving tactics and sophisticated surveillance of governments like Russia, China, and Iran.
The circumvention tools that do exist can be expensive to run, and they often require a level of technical expertise that most internet users lack. The new product created by Google’s Jigsaw, a team within the larger company that does more socially oriented work, is intended to make this all easier. Jigsaw created an SDK version of its Outline VPN product, which will allow developers to build censorship resistance directly into their apps.
More progress is being made every day to make the web more censorship resistant, largely thanks to networks of activists and volunteers who are committed to internet freedom, often in secret and at great personal risk.