Jonathan Zittrain

Credit: Phil Farnsworth

On Jan. 15, The New York Times included commentary by HLS Professor Jonathan Zittrain ’95 on “What web sites can do” in the wake of Google’s recent announcement that it would no longer censor search results in China. Zittrain was one of eight contributors to The New York Times’s post “Can Google beat China?” to comment on how technologists might defeat censorship and whether governments like China’s would be able to maintain strong censorship control with ever more advanced technology.  Zittrain is the author of “The Future of the Internet — And How to Stop It.”

What Web Sites Can Do

Most ways to get around filtering are on the demand side: the user has to do some work. I’d like to see some work done on the supply side, by Web sites themselves — and not just because of political censorship, but because of the many other reasons a site can become inaccessible, from a cyberattack to poor network connectivity.

We can design new protocols so that participating Web sites can share information with one another, and in the event one goes down, others can mirror what had been there, in exchange for similar help should they be the next victims.

It’s a kind of mutual aid treaty for the Internet, opted in one Web site at a time — creating a more robust infrastructure against all sorts of blockages. Already, we’re building an infrastructure with sites like Herdict so that users can report when they can’t get to a given site — something that web site operators are keen to know. As a public early warning system develops for network trouble, the next logical step is to help patch them up as they happen.

There’s little likelihood that China would want to hermetically seal itself the way a North Korea or Cuba has sought to achieve. But there is some aspiration for a “China Wide Web” where most users would find themselves accessing local content, in Chinese, for most of their surfing. That’s why another trend to watch is the improvement of automatic translation tools.

When the world’s peoples can speak fluently with one another, whether in blog comments, Wikipedia entries, tweets or instant messages, regardless of their native languages, that will be a quantum advance in the circulation of ideas.