Google has historically fought censorship to some degree, but the company is now putting an end to “domain fronting” done by services that try to avoid censorship using its own cloud services.
Domain fronting is a technique used to circumvent censorship by services and apps such as Signal, GreatFire.org, Tor, or Telegram by hiding to whom the user connects behind public cloud platforms such as those from Google and Amazon. The idea is that so many services use those cloud platforms that censors would think twice before trying to censor a whole cloud platform just to stop one service.
The country’s ISPs were recently ordered to block Telegram because the service's developers wouldn’t offer the government’s intelligence agencies its decryption keys. In an effort to evade this blockade, Telegram started using domain fronting. However, the Russian media regulator who first ordered the blocking of the service was quick to react, and demanded that the ISPs take down Telegram at all cost. It also asked Google and Apple to take down the Telegram app from their app stores.
Google Ends Domain Fronting On Its Platform
In the past, Google has generally been rather good at fighting censorship. For instance, in 2010 Google refused to go along with the government's new censorship efforts and left the country. However, it recently started signaling it wants to get back in the Chinese government's good graces.
In 2012, it started notifying Chinese citizens when their searches were being censored by the Chinese government, although the company silently ended that feature a year later.
Another example includes Google fighting against censorship from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). However, the company has made a variety of different concessions in the past few years in order to be able to sell its own audio and video content.
However, as soon as Russia started banning millions of its IP addresses in the country, Google said that domain fronting was never supposed to work on its platform and that it was just a quirk in its software that allowed this technique to work in the first place.
The company also announced that it will change how its cloud software works so that apps such as Signal, Tor, and Telegram can no longer use domain fronting to escape censorship in more oppressive countries.
Russian government’s IP blockade didn’t just stop Telegram from working, but it also disrupted many other foreign and Russian services from working, too. Therefore, it’s possible that if Google had waited longer, the government may have reverted the ban because of the citizens’ outrage. However, now we’ll never know because Google pulled the plug on domain fronting almost immediately.
A Less Ethical Google?
In the past Google used to fight much more for user’s digital rights, but that seems to have changed in the recent years.
Perhaps what we can conclude from this situation, as well as the “YouTube Adpocalypse,” where Google demonetized many channels to appease advertisers, Google’s mysterious silence on the repeal of net neutrality rules recently, its killing of the End-to-End encryption project for Gmail, and the company’s recent work with the Pentagon on autonomous military drones, is that Google now seems to prioritize profits over anything else.
This may help the company’s bottom line in the short term, but it may also impact its image with its users as well as its developers in the long-term, as over 3,100 Google employees recently warned in an open letter against the company’s work on military drones, too.