Privacy in an Age of Public Living: Google and Tor

In times of Internet censorship and governmental interference with citizen Web use, the need for private browsing has never been more apparent or more crucial to political processes.

Perhaps in response to its woes in China, Google has reaffirmed its support of online anonymity for political purposes in a recent blog post on Tor, a project it’s been supporting extensively lately. Tor allows for safe, anonymous Internet use – it’s a project that protects privacy and circumvents censorship in countries around the world. And as companies gather user data – data that can at any time and for any reason be surrendered to law enforcement or government agencies – safeguarding online anonymity becomes an ever more vital concern.

Last fall, we covered Tor’s successful porting to the Android platform. At that time and to this day, continuing to protect users’ privacy occupies a lot of time for Tor’s volunteers and developers. From the Google blog post:

“Why is anonymity online so important? Companies like Google have privacy and opt-out policies, but not everyone has this stance. Corporations, nations, criminal organizations and individuals want your information. Companies collect information on your web browsing habits and sell it or are sloppy when it comes to protecting it from identity thieves. Others can threaten lives, from repressive nations tracking down outspoken journalists, to abusive spouses or stalkers who want to find out where their victims are hiding; from enemy military forces trying to find a communications link, to criminals who know when law enforcement is watching online[…]

Even people living in countries where free speech is protected by law need anonymity for political activities. People blogging about political views that differ from the prevailing attitudes in a small community may lose a job or face boycotts if they run a business. In a company town, writing about the misdeeds of the company that employs your neighbors may be dangerous. Telling people about corruption could lead to harassment from guilty officials.”

This graph shows how, in 2009, use of Tor grew as users scrambled to circumvent firewalls during the elections and subsequent protests and violence in Iran, and in China, as well:

Is this blog post a clear and direct “Screw you” to Chinese authorities who would censor Internet access and search results? Or is it a continuation of Google’s commitment to protecting the users they profit from? Or a bit of both? Let us know what you think in the comments – and stay tuned for our upcoming chat with Chinese political activist Ai Weiwei and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey.

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