10.21.13

Google Sends a Lifeline to Internet Users in Iran and China

Starting today, an Internet user in an oppressive country can swap online identities with someone in the West. Josh Rogin on how the tech company is battling censors.

For years, Google has been developing ways to help people living under oppressive regimes thwart online suppression. Today, the company unveils three new tools to help advance the fight.

Starting Monday, Google users in places like Iran, Syria, China, and Russia will be able to mask their online identity with the help of a friend in a censor-free country. Human-rights groups will have a new tool to stop their governments from shutting down their websites. And the world will have a new way to watch where the most cyber attacks are coming from.

The first tool, a browser extension called uProxy establishes an encrypted link between two users who know and trust each other—one who is trying to evade detection and one who is allowing that first user to assume his or her online identity. A Syrian activist, for example, can now experience the internet through the browser of a friend in the United States. It’s like a social networking tool for dissidents.

“You would use uProxy to exit a country that you are in that is practicing oppressive practices to a country that you consider to be free and open. You’re using the internet of a trusted connection,” said Yasmin Green, the principal responsible for strategy and operations at Google Ideas, the company’s “think/do tank” based out of New York. “This is an example of a product that is needed in places like Iran, where there is no safe way to access the internet without knowing that you are safe from being monitored and intercepted."

Green and Google Ideas director Jared Cohen, a former official in Hillary Clinton’s State Department, will be unveiling uProxy on Monday at a conference called Conflict on a Connected World, hosted in conjunction with the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, and the Gen Next Foundation, a venture philanthropy group. In an interview with The Daily Beast, the Google leaders talked about the new tools and shared their vision for their company’s role in giving cyber dissidents the means to fight their governments.

The company is constantly evaluating how to balance their desire to lead the fight for online freedom while staying out of the business of creating the content to be protected. For now, the plan is to focus on the most vulnerable victims and the most egregious violators.

Google Ideas
Google Ideas' Digital Attack Map showing real time graphical data of where large scale attacks are occurring around the world. (Google Ideas)

Unlike Internet proxy services already available, uProxy does not make its users completely anonymous; instead, the user in a free country simply allows the oppressed user to experience the internet using his or her online identity and IP address. Conversely, Western users could see the “halal internet” through the browser of their Iranian friends if they want to see what the Web is like from behind the censorship firewall.

UProxy was developed by the University of Washington and the nonprofit Brave New Software with the help of seed money from Google Ideas.

Alongside the uProxy rollout, Google is also expanding a program to protect websites of free-speech groups from being taken down by distributed denial of service or DDOS attacks, which is when one server or website is inundated with attacks until it can no longer function. Called Project Shield, the program brings websites under the umbrella of Google’s protection so that they can withstand even the most severe DDOS attacks without being forced to shut down.

Over the last year, Project Shield has been successfully used by a number of trusted testers, including Balatarin, a Persian-language social and political blog, and Aymta, a website providing early-warning of scud missiles to people in Syria. Shield was also used to protect the election monitoring service in Kenya, allowing the group to keep its site active through an entire election cycle for the first time. Now, Google is inviting all websites focused on independent news, human rights, and elections-related content to apply to join.

“Project Shield is really extending our investment in infrastructure and protecting ourselves against DDOS attacks to the websites that protect free speech,” said Green.

Finally, to show where cyber attacks are coming from, Google is also unveiling what it calls the Digital Attack Map, which shows real time graphical data about where large-scale attacks are occurring and allows users to compare that data to what they are seeing happening in the world outside of the Internet.

“We’re saying here’s where the attacks are coming from, here’s where they are targeting, and here’s what’s going on in the news today,” said Cohen.

The conference and the new product announcements are all part of the evolution of Google and its internal “think/do tank” toward a more active role in protecting both users’ rights and abilities on the internet. Past Google Ideas ventures have included a program to warn Gmail users who are targets of state-sponsored cyber attacks  and a tool to track the defections of Syrian officials.

“We focus on a particular category of user that is having the most difficult time,” said Cohen. “These are the users in places like Iran, Syria, North Korea, and Cuba. If free expression is an important value to us as a company, we need to put our products where our mouth is.”