Connectivity

How Google’s new tool helps apps dodge government censorship

A new developer kit aims to circumvent internet crackdowns in places like Iran and China.
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When Iran’s streets first flooded with protesters over the murder of Mahsa Amini by police exactly one year ago, it didn’t take long before the country’s government started throttling citizens’ internet access.

Outline, a virtual private network (VPN) tool from Google’s internet freedom-focused Jigsaw unit, was one of many such web-surfing workarounds blocked at times in the crackdown, and the team struggled to circulate timely updates to the apps and services that rely on it in order to get them back online.

That experience was one of the primary motivations behind a new software development kit (SDK) the Jigsaw group released this week that allows developers for other VPN tools, social networks, and news outlets to build censorship circumvention directly into their apps.

“It was a result of seeing what more we could do, but not being ready the last time, not being ready for the Iran protests that just happened, and wanting to be ready going forward,” Google Jigsaw CEO Yasmin Green told Tech Brew.

The rollout comes as countries around the world are in the midst of what Green calls a “winter” in which repressive governments have generally become much savvier about how to censor online information and communication.

Anti-censorship advocates like Jigsaw’s internet freedom engineering lead, Vinicius Fortuna, have been locked in a cat-and-mouse game with governments wielding increasingly sophisticated blocking techniques.

“What architecture would you build to disadvantage the cats and advantage the mice?” Green asked.

Outline’s workarounds are open-source, but it can take time for Outline-based apps to incorporate changes, Fortuna said. The SDK is meant to make that sharing process easier, he said.

“With Outline SDK, it will be a lot easier to share this kind of technology,” Fortuna told Tech Brew. “And [developers] can just pick and choose the things that will help them and plug in their system.”

Balatarin, a Reddit-like Iranian forum, and nthLink, a service that aims to offer unfettered internet access in blocked regions, are two of the apps that rely on Jigsaw’s tech, according to Green and Fortuna.

Fortuna said the SDK could also be of use to news apps: “I’m particularly excited about empowering media apps to remove the hurdles to their content,” Fortuna said. “Imagine downloading a news app, and not needing VPN to access the content. The app already brings the censorship circumvention. I think that is very powerful.”

In an environment in which government repression can seem insurmountable, Green said it’s important to focus on laying the groundwork for the next protest action.

“There’s a real lull in morale…governments are becoming more effective at repressing the internet and using the internet to stifle any type of resistance movements,” Green said. “What the SDK is in response to is ‘What should we be doing today?’—even when there isn’t an active uprising—so that when people are moved to challenge oppressive governments, they have the technology to be connected to each other and connected to the outside world.”

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Tech Brew informs business leaders about the latest innovations, automation advances, policy shifts and more to help them make smart decisions.