Google, Censorship, and the Hostage Dilemma

David V.

December 9, 2002

On September 8, 2002, the Chinese government blocked Google, one of the Internet’s biggest search engines. The government of China regularly blocks websites that it considers “dangerous” to its regime, but is a search engine – it only indexes the Internet without bias or preference to the content of a particular website. So why would Google be banned in China, especially considering that it is a crucial research tool without adequate Chinese substitutes? I believe that the answer lies in a game theory scenario known as the hostage dilemma. Because Google had the potential to greatly improve coordination between pro-democracy supporters, it may pose a threat to the Chinese regime. While the exact intentions of China in blocking Google are not clear, the incident holds a lesson for anyone trying to support or suppress democratic movements in authoritarian regimes.

It has been widely recognized that preventing communication and coordination is key to suppressing dissent in an authoritarian regime. Governments have a much easier time subjugating their citizens when there are no organizations through which one may express dissent. Louis XVI failed to learn this lesson when he called together the Estates General to raise money and ended up being beheaded when the delegates teamed up against him. Gorbachev may have forgotten it as well, as his policy of glasnost not only exposed the Soviet Union to the west, but allowed the democratic movement to organize the a government, leading to the collapse of the USSR. In China and Cuba, dissidents are severely punished and isolated from their peers, for any statements that paint the state in a bad light. It is clear that authoritarian regimes not only have an interest in suppressing opposition, but preventing coordination among dissidents as well.

Traditionally, opposition groups have used conventional means of communications to coordinate their efforts, but in an oppressive (and especially urban) society, this poses many problems. In person communication requires planning, which may be intercepted by the government. Telephone calls, mail, and print publications can be recorded or seized and the organizers arrested. While local interpersonal communication is hard to trace, any organization on a national level is nearly impossible to organize in an authoritarian regime because of the hazards to the organizers. Many of these regimes are almost universally opposed by their citizens, but because a coordinated revolt is very difficult to organize, oppressive regimes may persist for many years.

However, governments cannot keep an eye on every citizen, and therefore they must find a way to set up incentives so that no citizen would want to engage in “counter-revolutionary” activities, even if the risk of getting caught is small. Many methods have been devised to do this over they years. The most obvious is to impose severe punishments for even minor infractions, so that the high cost of protest makes opposition too risky for most. Another common method is to refuse to distinguish political dissidents from common criminals, thereby denying dissidents the possibility of martyrdom. Penetrating social structure is yet another method – for example, breaking of weakening familial bonds by raising children away from parents and encouraging them to turn in any critics of government, even family members. A similar strategy is to replace old social organizations with new party-oriented ones, and set up leadership arrangements so that the most loyal party members are always in charge. For example, in China, the State runs labor organizations, youth leagues, and otherwise maintains a monopoly on all organizations, so that no non-governmental framework exists to organize dissent. Perhaps this is why China so opposed to Falun Gong – it represents an entity outside of its control, unlike the government authorized and controlled Catholic and Buddhist churches/temples.

The growth of the Internet poses a significant threat to authoritarian an government’s ability to monitor its citizens. The Internet allows communication to be instant, relatively anonymous, globally accessible, and perhaps most damaging of all, it allows citizens to learn about living standards and political philosophies of free nations. For this reason, most authoritarian regimes have restricted Internet access to varying degrees. In Cuba, where only a tiny minority of the population can even afford a computer, domestic Internet access is still banned. Citizens may only access email for a steep fee in government Post Offices, and nowhere are they allowed to print or save any documents to disc. As one of the Cuban dissidents explains: “The high [email-access] prices, which disguise high taxes, are a subtle form of censorship, and they finance everything from new investment to the maintenance of the repressive apparatus.”5

Several nations with wealthier populations allow limited Internet access but block any website that is critical of the government. The only nations (out of those that allow Internet access at all) to have successful website blocking programs at the ISP level are China and Saudi Arabia.2 However, the Internet has over 36 million websites6, and it is impossible to block all the objectionable ones. It is estimated that over 30,000 people in China work on filtering out websites1 and the cost of manual filters and Cisco-developed filtering technology makes the cost of finding every single objectionable site prohibitive. To complicate the problem, supporters of democracy often set up mirrors (exact duplicates) of banned sites abroad, and a number of governmental and non-governmental organizations are working to set up automated methods for creating alternative access routes to blocked sites. This is where Google comes in. Its automated spider crawls the web from link to link and indexes all the sites it finds in a giant database. Google also creates copies, or a cache the sites it finds, so that it can be access when it’s down (or blocked.) Furthermore, Google constantly and automatically updates its indexes, so that each day brings fresh search results from new sites. Because China does not have the resources to index every single site, it apparently decided to block the entire search engine. As a recent Newsweek article put it, “When the Chinese government decided that the Web offered its citizenry an overly intimate view of the world outside its borders, what better way to pull down the shades than to block Google?” By blocking the entire search engine, it tried to make it significantly harder for dissenters to communicate and locate unblocked (and cached) versions of undesirable sites.

However China’s blocking of Google was not entirely successful. Many websites have licensing deals with Google, and blocking them would require blocking most major search engines and many other sites. Hours after Google was blocked, part of Yahoo and AltaVistsa were blocked because media sites immediately reported ways to get around the block. Since then, the ban on most Google-enabled sites has been lifted in lieu of new technology that filters out particular search results (“cache”, the term for Google saved archive of a site is one of them) or simply disconnects the user from the Internet.

In addition to blocking websites on the ISP side, China has attempted to control access from the user’s side as well. Earlier this year, citing “fire hazards” and “students who died of fatigue in cafes,” China shut down thousands of cafes, imposed mandatory filters, a voluntary “Public Pledge on Self-Discipline” and time and age restrictions on café use. Furhermore, a ban on a particular nation’s media outlets seems to travel along with the Dalai Lama.8 With such policies, China hopes to make access to “dangerous” ideas more difficult. It is widely acknowledged that China can never block every single dissident site, but my raising the amount of effort needed to communicate with fellow dissidents at home and abroad, it thinks it can prevent the medium from being used for reasons “harmful to social stability.” 9

The fact that China does not ban Internet access completely is an indicator that that the government does not have a free hand to impose dis-incentives against undesirable activity. While blocking Internet access completely would be a more effective way to prevent coordination, this may also be too costly as solution because of the vital role the Internet plays in integrating China into the world market and China’s desire to enter various international trade organizations. Furthermore, China removed most of the blocks on Google less than a week after they began, probably a response to the combination of negative media coverage and complaints from its own researchers. Overly harsh punishments also have the risk of creating martyrs and arousing public resentment. Thus, authoritarian regimes must maintain a balance between suppressing and punishing expression of undesirable ideas and keeping the resources and attention on their activities to a minimum.

What kind of strategies could dissidents use to overcome government efforts at censorship? The Internet, with its anonymous and encrypted means of communication, provides unique opportunities to circumvent official restrictions. The ability to locate websites on foreign servers is another great advantage to dissidents– it’s hard to operate a printing press or a even server (because IP addresses can be tracked down to their origin) in secret from one’s own government, but moving operations abroad doesn’t raise the cost of communication while preventing raids and confiscation of equipment for the dissidents. (This isn’t always true: China has been the origin of a number of hacking incidents in various universities and government agencies, including several library servers at Texas A&M earlier this year.) Furthermore, the support of governmental and non-governmental projects in democratic countries can be a big help to dissidents, by creating new technologies such as Peekabooty, and Triangle Boy, which may also go a long way towards this goal. These technologies create encrypted networks that have no central point of origin and facilitate anonymous access to shared documents and/or regular websites. The Global Internet Freedom Act, a proposed bill in Congress to create an Office of Global Internet Freedom with a 50 million dollar budget may also be of great help to raising the costs to China of censoring democratic movements. Pressure from major media networks has also been successful in opening access to blocked sites, as widespread condemnation of China’s blocking of western news outlets has led it to reopen access to some of the sites.

Whether immediate efforts to prevent coordination among dissidents are successful, China’s attempts at censorship are bound to fail in the long run. Because the Internet’s value as a commercial and research tool are bound to grow, and are closely intertwined with alternative uses, the costs of preventing access to any particular material is bound to become prohibitively expensive, especially with the rapid and exponential growth of Internet users in China. Meanwhile, the best strategy democratic nations can follow is to make China’s censorship policy as costly as possible by sponsoring the development of circumvention technologies.


1 “Replacement of Google with Alternative Search Systems in China”

2. Felipe Rodriquez. (30 November 2002 ) ‘Freedom of the Media and the Internet’. Paper for the OSCE workshop

3. Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello. Every Cuban Has a Built-In Policeman

4. John DeSio. (January 2, 2002) First pro-democracy Web site in Cuba is launched. Digital Freedom Network

5. Manuel David Orrio. (October 8, 2001) Independent Cuban journalist gets access to e-mail. Cooperativa de Periodistas Independientes (CPI)

6. Internet starts to shrink. (January, 2002) BBC Sci/Tech News

7. Bobson Wong. (July 23, 2002) Chinese Internet clampdown continues after cybercafe fire. Digital Freedom Network

8. Bobson Wong (April 25, 2002) Temporary Chinese ban on Australian news site ends. Digital Freedom Network

9. Zhao Ying, “information and security issues,” Jingji Guanli, no.5, may 5. 1998pp as printed in Rand Report ‘You’ve got dissent!’ pp48 chapter two, government counter strategies

10. Steven Levy. (Dec. 16, 2002) The World According to Google

11. Paul Wilkinson. (October 2, 2002) Bipartisan, Bicameral Bill Stops Internet Jamming