Editor's note: We are posting this story from the April 2010 issue early.

Late last year a series of sophisticated Internet attacks emanating from China burrowed deep into the computer systems of some two dozen U.S. corporations, among them Northrop Grumman, Dow Chemical and Yahoo. One fought back. After revealing that the attacks targeted not only its core intellectual property but the e-mail accounts of Chinese human-rights activists, Google announced that it would stop censoring search results on Google.cn, its Chinese-language search engine. The move led to threats by the Chinese authorities to shut down Google’s operations inside China.

The charges and retaliations seem reminiscent of so much cold war bluster, and indeed this encounter could be the first great clash of the 21st century’s two emergent superpowers—Google and China. More than a battle over territory or market share, it is a conflict over ideology, one that pits a free and open Internet that empowers individuals at the expense of existing power structures against an Internet micromanaged by those powers. “What we’re talking about here is a defense of the essence of the Internet,” says Jeff Jarvis, director of the interactive journalism program at the City University of New York and author of What Would Google Do? (HarperCollins, 2009).

More than any other organization, Jarvis says, Google has both the means and the incentive to ensure that the Internet remains open. It is also one of the few organizations with a broad enough online presence to define the standard operating rules of the Internet, explains Rebecca MacKinnon, a researcher at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University. Google is “the first mover in so many different sectors,” she says. “It can set the norms for how open one can be online.”

For anticensorship advocates, Google is also one of the few organizations with enough raw computing power to significantly aid the fight against authoritarian regimes. “My hope, and expectation, is that Google engineers who might have been a bit halfhearted about implementing censorship mandates in Google.cn could be full throttle in coming up with ways for Google to be viewed despite any network interruptions between site and user,” says Jonathan Zittrain, a co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. 

Google could combat China’s censorship efforts by helping those within China breach the so-called Great Firewall. As with buildings in the physical world, every location on the Internet has an address associated with it—an Internet protocol, or IP, address. In addition to filtering certain keywords, the administrators of the Great Firewall maintain a huge list of blocked IP addresses. Circumvention tools send a user to an unblocked address, then pipe in all outside information through that “proxy” IP address. Yet at any time, this tunnel could collapse. “One of these IP addresses could last forever, or for months, or for minutes” before the authorities find it and block it, says Hal Roberts, an expert in circumvention tools at the Berkman Center.

Hence, any large-scale circumvention effort requires a huge number of addresses to cycle through, along with an enormous amount of bandwidth to support all the tunneling. “If we could magically convince all Chinese people to use [these services],” Roberts says, “then someone would have to pay for the entire outgoing bandwidth of China.” That might strain Google’s resources, but not by much.

Still, there are good reasons for Google not to start this kind of proxy war. Promoting a free and open Internet is one thing; actively undermining the laws of a sovereign nation is another. Moreover, these same circumvention tools also work as anonymity tools—anyone can use proxy servers to hide their true identity. “This makes them very useful for all kinds of bad activities,” Roberts says. “They could be used to hack Google’s servers or for attacks against Google services using click fraud and spam. So there’s a strong question from Google’s point of view whether it is in their best interest to promote them.”

No matter what course the standoff takes in the months and years to come, it has brought into focus this battle for control over how unrestricted the Internet should be. Right now users depend on companies such as Google to defend the Internet from forces—governmental and otherwise—that would exert more top-down control over it. That may not be enough. “Google—along with a whole range of Internet companies and communications companies—has created this layer on which we depend,” MacKinnon observes. Yet there is no set of rules, no Internet Bill of Rights, that would codify the rights of citizens online. “These companies are saying, ‘We’re good people, trust us,’” MacKinnon says. “As with a benevolent dictatorship, it works really well when the current leader is a great guy. But then he dies, and his evil son takes over. And then everybody’s screwed.”