Google's Chinese web encryption is nothing more than PR and posturing

We are spied upon. Someone, somewhere, knows what you have been doing online. It might be your snooping friend taking a look at your browsing history, or it might be that weird looking guy on the next table in the coffee shop watching your every click. It might be advertisers using cookies, or it could be your own government. This is now just about expected; it is part and parcel of using the internet. In some parts of the world, access to the internet is not only monitored, but also restricted and controlled. But it didn’t used to be like this, and it needn't stay like this.

In some regions the idea of mass spying is a relatively recent concept. The activities of the NSA, GCHQ and other government organizations are something only the most recent generation of internet users is "used" to -- for the rest us, it is at best an unpleasant sea change, and at worst just the tip of the iceberg. As it was revealed that governments were not only spying on citizens' online activities but also getting other companies involved by requiring them to hand over user data, big names such as Microsoft, Google, and Apple were falling over themselves to appear to be going out of their way to reveal everything they could about the demands made of them. It was the PR machine in action, trying to make the best of a very, very bad situation.

Few companies are more adept at trying to get people on its side than Google. Forget "don't be evil", these days it is more about saving face -- "don’t appear to be evil". The company's latest move is to start encrypted searches that are conducted in China. This is a country famed for the restrictions it places on internet usage, and the Great Firewall of China and government interference with the web are the worst kept secrets online.

Like Google, China is keen to maintain a particular image. Rather than engaging in an expensive and ineffective PR campaign, the country has chosen a different route: wrestling control of the internet from the people so it is completely in control of what people are able to access. Don’t like that awkward event in your history? Just pretend it didn’t happen! No one will notice! Chinese control of the internet is widely condemned around the world and there are frequent calls for "something to be done about it".

Google's announcement that it is to encrypt Chinese searches seems like a great idea -- people in China should be able to access the wider web and evade governmental intervention. At least that's the theory. Google is fooling itself if it thinks the Chinese government won’t be able to find a way to close this loophole; it may already have done so. I'm not saying that Google and others should just sit back on its heels and do nothing, but it is very difficult not to view this move cynically.

Speaking to the Washington Post, Percy Alpha, the founder of Great Firewall of China monitor group GreatFire.org said "It will be a huge headache for Chinese censorship authorities. We hope other companies will follow Google to make encryption by default".

This is the way it looks, but we have no way of knowing what is happening in the background. China could very easily stop the encrypted searches from working -- it has legions of technicians specializing in just this. It may do this, or it may not. A more sinister possibility is that "encrypted" searches are allowed to continue unfettered, but the Chinese government closely monitors the activities of individuals. This is dangerous. We have no way of knowing whether Google is in cahoots with the Chinese government -- on the face of it, it appears that the company is helping out the Chinese nation, but trust is at an all-time low.

When talking about the US government monitoring of online activity, we are constantly told by Microsoft, Google, Yahoo et al that there are limits on what we can be told. I'm quite sure that the US government has placed heavy restrictions on what online companies are able to reveal, but because there is so much going on out of sight, we just have no way of knowing whether we're not being told what’s going on because the government prevents companies from revealing more on pain of death, or whether this information is not being revealed because it would look bad for the companies involved. No company wants to be revealed as being on the receiving end of huge payouts for handing over user data, for instance.

What's happening in China is the other side of the same coin. The NSA revelations have seen companies scrabbling to save face, but now Google is trying to use the situation in China as a public relations exercise. The irony is that while the company is keen to appear to be helping those in China, it is rather less keen on taking steps to avoid the long arm of the US, UK and other governments. What is it one rule for one set of users, and another for others? It doesn't make sense and it smacks of PR and posturing.

Forgive me, but I can't just take all of this at face value.

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