Small projects will punch huge holes in the Great Firewall of China and the Fatwa Barriers of the Middle East. A good article in today's Wall Street Journal summarizes how users are taking the initiative for freedom that major Net companies have shied away from:
In response to China's crackdown, and to restrictions in many Middle Eastern countries as well, a small army has been mustered to defeat them. "Hacktivists," they call themselves.
Bennett Haselton, a security consultant and former Microsoft programmer, has developed a system called the Circumventor. It connects volunteers around the world with Web users in China and the Middle East so they can use their hosts' personal computers to read forbidden sites.
Think about this in the context of the argument that it is better to cooperate with totalitarian government to gain marketshare and spread a little information. These projects demonstrate that people simply aren't willing to accept stunted freedoms. In another WSJ piece today, Yahoo! General Counsel Michael Callahan said the problem is not one his company or a group of companies can solve: "We believe this is a government-to-government issue and no one company and no one industry can handle it on its own."
Indeed, it is partly the responsibility of government to help create better business conditions. The Internet, however, is still in a very fragile formative era where compromises with restrictive government information standards can kill the wider freedom it has fostered.
These bottom-up projects are succeeding in small ways every day. They are proof that the Net is propelled by pursuit of greater freedom.
Cooperation by Google, Yahoo! and MSN, among others, with the Chinese government actually slows the spread of Net freedom by making it easy to accept truncated search results and censored sites.
If it is better to be entertained and unfree, yes, I suppose a censored Google or Yahoo! is better than no Google or Yahoo! at all.
People want more, however, and I continue to believe the Net giants are disappointing consumers in these countries through their support of censorship.
UPDATE: Congress will consider a bill that would prevent U.S.-based companies from locating servers in China and other repressive countries in order to protect user's personal information from being handed over to the government.