Google's motto is simple: "Don't be evil." But the end of January saw the launch of Google.cn, a search service that enforces efforts by the Chinese government to censor delicate terms like "Tibet" or "pornography." It seems evil is a relative term.
A recently launched Web applet, http://opennet.net/google_china/ , allows surfers to compare Google results in China and Canada. It was created as a form of protest by a self-described group of "hacktivists" at the University of Toronto's own Citizen Lab ( www.citizenlab.org ).
The Lab, operating from the depths of the Munk Centre for International Studies, brings together a diverse group of media experts, hackers and social scientists devoted to melding the worlds of social activism and information technology. In the words of founder Ron Deibert, an associate professor of political science, the group deliberately uses models borrowed from intelligence organizations to subvert attempts at censorship and surveillance by countries like China.
"We see ourselves as civil society spies," he says.
The Lab's partnership with the Open Net Initiative, the group that hosts the Google comparison site, has been bolstered recently by a whopping $3 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation. Through a number of similar projects, Open Net is surveilling totalitarian control of the Internet around the world.
To do this, it favours grassroots methods that engage NGOs like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and their workers on the ground. They report back on the state of Internet freedom in repressive regimes, sometimes at great personal risk. Members have been questioned by secret police, beaten and even jailed for online snooping.
The group has also created an enigmatic-looking black box disguised as a CD-ROM drive that fits seamlessly into a computer tower.
The computer is smuggled into a country such as Tunisia or Iran and plugged into the Internet. Programs in the black box scurry off to gather data on the censorship of everything from the New York Times website to opposition sites written in the local language.
At HQ in Canada, Citizen Labbers analyze the data and, says Deibert, interrogate servers by probing networks for Web pages that are blocked. A particularly sensitive time for this is during elections.
"The cyber-dimensions of election monitoring are often forgotten," says Deibert, "but the Internet is the most important medium for opposition parties, and is often the object of attack from ruling parties."
Late last year, during Kyrgyzstan's election, the group carefully monitored state interference with opposition websites and online newspapers. E-mails from an unknown "Shadow Team" demanded that local ISPs cease carrying information about unrest in the country printed by two Krygyz newspapers, and that a popular local news site stop publishing information about the situation. With true activist audacity, Citizen Lab hosted the opposition websites itself, subverting the Kyrgyzstan censor.
CiviSec, a Citizen Lab project whose name means "security for civil society," is described by Deibert as a suite of tools and strategies designed to help dissidents around the world to thwart censorship and surveillance.
It offers a free (and anonymous if need be) blogging platform for political dissidents and social activists at civiblog.org .
An upcoming CiviSec application, Psyphon, is described as a circumvention tool for people living in repressive regimes to bypass Internet censors. People in the West install simple software on their computers and call friends and family in repressive countries with inside information on a proxy server, lifting the veil of censorship
For Deibert, one of the most satisfying aspects of these projects has been uncovering American corporations, like Google, that are complicit in censorship. Citizen Lab employees have been invited to testify on censorship in China at Senate and Congressional hearings. Secure Computing, a California company, was flagged by Open Net as illegally exporting goods to Iran. Its response? "They must have got it off eBay."
Deibert remains philosophical, and tells me the Citizen Lab crew take their work very seriously. That's because, he says, the Web is essential to a functioning liberal democracy in the 21st century.