In a surprising move, Google has decided to block domain fronting from its cloud infrastructure that allowed people to bypass government censorship and access blocked websites. No more “Don’t Be Evil.”
The Internet giant is also setting up a special version of its search engine for China. And guess what’s “special” about it? The search engine will filter out content that the Chinese government deems “unfit.” Considering that Google had withdrawn from the country in 2010 because of the censorship requirements of the government, the company’s latest effort is a clear signal that it is willing to accept censoring the Internet.
Removing domain fronting
Domain fronting works by hiding the hostname of a website with another one. So if the address of the website ABC is blocked by any country, the company can simply use another trusted address, say Google, to mask itself. This would allow people from that country to access the website, bypassing censorship.
Google claims that it never intended to provide domain fronting as a feature for its App Engine cloud service and that it had simply been a workaround that people had been using.
“Domain fronting has never been a supported feature at Google, but until recently it worked because of a quirk of our software stack… We’re constantly evolving our network, and as part of a planned software update, domain fronting no longer works. We don’t have any plans to offer it as a feature”, The Register quotes a statement made by Google’s spokesperson.
There is a good reason why the company decided to block out domain fronting from its App Engine — to avoid being banned. In countries where there are strict censorships, people would use Google’s domain fronting to access blocked websites. As a consequence, the government will be forced to ban Google’s services in their country to prevent people from bypassing censorships.
A good example is the blockade of the Telegram app in Russia by Putin’s government. Telegram is an encrypted chat application that was widely used by the country’s political opposition. To prevent the opposition from chatting securely, the Russian government blocked Telegram from the country.
However, Telegram and its users began using the domain fronting feature of Google and Amazon cloud services to bypass the blockade. As a result, the Russian government started blocking addresses from both Amazon and Google. And according to experts, it is to avoid such scenarios that Google decided to terminate domain fronting from its could services.
Freedom of the Internet
The decision to block domain fronting has admittedly not gone down well with the public. And this is not surprising since Google has created an image of being a champion of an uncensored Internet. As such, for Google to disallow people from bypassing national censorship took many people by surprise. Access Now, an organization dedicated to the cause of free and open Internet, has criticized Google’s actions, saying that it breaks the trust people have in the company.
“Allowing domain fronting has meant that potentially millions of people have been able to experience a freer internet and enjoy their human rights. We urge Google to remember its commitment to human rights and internet freedom and allow domain fronting to continue”, Nathan White, Senior Legislative Manager of the organization says in a company blog.
If Google’s decision tells us something, it is that the age-old truth of business still rings true — a business will always put its economic interests over anything else. And many people do see the company’s actions as a result of corporate greed. But it also sends a chilling warning sign to rights activists. Because if even the biggest tech company in the world is not able to hold onto its ideal of a free, uncensored Internet, the future looks pretty bleak for freedom on the Internet.