Google Unveils Tools to Access Web From Repressive Countries

The tech titan is introducing products to track Internet attacks and aid free expression

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Andrew Kelly / Reuters

Google's logo is seen at the company's New York City office.

Google Ideas, the New York City–based “think/do tank” run by the Internet search giant, is launching several new technologies designed to highlight hacker attacks around the world and help people in repressive regimes access the Internet. The new products, which are being announced on Monday at the Google Ideas Summit in New York City, represent the most substantial offerings delivered by the three-year-old Google policy unit and could be a major boon to activists and reformers in the world’s most closed and repressive societies.

“There are billions of people around the world living in environments that severely restrict their free expression,” Jared Cohen, director of Google Ideas, told TIME in an interview on Sunday. “We want to empower them to have access to the same Internet that the rest of us experience. We talk about how we have a responsibility to our users. That also includes people in Iran, North Korea, Cuba and Syria, where the challenges are so serious.”

Cohen, a 31-year-old geopolitical expert, earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from Stanford and Oxford, and later worked as a U.S. State Department adviser to Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton before being asked by Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt to launch Google Ideas in 2010. Cohen, who co-authored The New Digital Age with Schmidt in April, said he was attracted to Google by the “activist spirit” of many of the company’s employees.

“This is a company of activists and white-hat hackers,” said Cohen. “When you work at Google and tell these engineers that their skill set is relevant to somebody in Iran who doesn’t have access to information in their country or the rest of the world, it really inspires them to want to do something about it. There is a genuine altruism that exists at this company, and that’s why I’m here and not anywhere else.”

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The most ambitious product launch is uProxy, a new Web-browser extension that uses peer-to-peer technology to let people around the world provide one another with a trusted Internet connection. This product is designed to protect the Internet connection of users in, say, Iran, from state surveillance or filtering. Google Ideas is providing funding and technical assistance for uProxy, which was developed by researchers at the University of Washington and Brave New Software.

“If you look at existing proxy tools today, as soon as they’re effective for dissidents, the government finds out about them and either blocks them or infiltrates them,” said Cohen. “Every dissident we know in every repressive society has friends outside the country whom they know and trust. What if those trusted friends could unblock the access in those repressive societies by sharing their own access? That was the problem we tried to solve.”

UProxy allows users in the U.S. to give their trusted friends in Iran — people they might already be e-mailing or chatting with — access to the open U.S. Internet. “The user in Iran can get unfiltered access to the Internet that’s completely uncensored and will look just like it does in the U.S.,” said Cohen. “It’s completely encrypted, and there’s no way for the government to detect what’s happening because it just looks like voice traffic or chat traffic. We wanted to build a proxy service that builds on top of trusted relationships that already exist.”

Google Ideas is also launching Project Shield, which is an initiative designed to help human-rights activists, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), election-monitoring groups and news organizations better protect their websites from “distributed denial of service” (DDoS) attacks. Several high-profile news organizations, including the New York Times, have recently been targeted by hackers who used DDoS attacks to temporarily shut down websites. “Google is very good at protecting itself from DDoS attacks,” said Cohen. “But NGOs, independent media outlets, human-rights organizations and election-monitoring organizations don’t have the capacity to protect themselves in the way that we do.”

“We believe in human rights, we believe in free expression, we believe in election monitoring, and we believe in independent media.” Cohen said the goal is to leverage Google’s technology to aid these efforts. Project Shield is currently under development — consistent with Google’s “launch and iterate” product philosophy — and the company is inviting webmasters working in these areas to apply to join its next round of “trusted” testers. For now, the product is free, Cohen said.

The third Google Ideas product launch is the Digital Attack Map, which is a live data visualization, built in conjunction with network-security firm Arbor Networks, that displays DDoS attacks worldwide in real time. This online tool shows real-time anonymous traffic data related to DDoS attacks, and also lets users explore historical trends and see related news reports, via Google News, of website outages as they are happening.

“What we’ve done for the first time is take all of the DDoS attacks worldwide and show what the state of DDoS activity looks like in real time, much like you’d check the weather,” said Cohen. “If you think about all of the organizations around the world that use a website as their modern-day office — NGOs, businesses, governments — it’s not O.K. to have this many digital office raids shutting them down.” Cohen said DDoS attacks are the online equivalent of masked gunmen storming a newsroom and taking a station off the air by force.

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Google Ideas is introducing the new products during a conference in New York City called Conflict in a Connected World, which the tech giant is sponsoring in conjunction with the Council on Foreign Relations and the Gen Next Foundation. Computer-security experts, entrepreneurs, dissidents and journalists from around the world have gathered in lower Manhattan to discuss how technology can be both a liberating force — and a tool for state repression.

Given Google’s size and influence in the tech world, it’s only natural that some observers might take a cynical view of the company’s Internet-freedom efforts. After all, Google is neither a nonprofit group (although it has a philanthropic arm called nor a charitable organization. Google is a capitalist juggernaut with a $337 billion market capitalization, $56.5 billion in cash and a stock price that now exceeds $1,000 per share. Put simply, as more people around the world use the Internet, Google is poised to benefit financially. Last quarter, Google said revenue from outside the U.S. totaled $7.67 billion, representing 56% of the company’s total business, a figure that will only grow as more people around the world get online.

In the interview with TIME, Cohen addressed such doubts. “If you think about some of the environments we’re talking about, like North Korea, Iran, Syria, Cuba and Sudan, all of these countries have sanctions on them,” said Cohen. “So there’s no business interest in these countries. The interest we have is in giving users in every environment the same level of security and unfiltered access that you or I have here in the United States. We care about free expression, and this is an example of us putting our product where our mouth is.”