Alphabet Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG)’s Google announced yesterday that they will offer free protection from cyber attacks to news websites which are vulnerable to censorship. The service, which Google is calling Project Shield, is entirely free to use and open to all news website, regardless of how large or small.
DDoS attacks have become a common censorship tool used by repressive governments and extremist organizations to target news websites at critical times, such as during the Iranian election and its aftermath or during the Arab Spring protests. Rather than having to invest in complex and costly systems like the Chinese Great Firewall which filter out and permanently ban “dangerous” websites, DDoS attacks allow repressive governments to target websites and only take them offline temporarily during crucial moments when their coverage might inspire civil unrest.
Small websites often do not have the resources to fight back against such attacks especially since DDoS attacks have become increasingly more powerful in recent years. An estimate by DDoS-tracking firm Arbor Network suggests that now attacks routinely reach 100 gigabits per second. News websites are often targets of these attacks more than other kinds of websites because their work depends on being able to stay online and report the news.
While Google is also offering DDoS defense services to other types of websites which are targets of censorship, such as websites tracking human rights violations, the company have stressed that their focus is news websites because the ability to stay online is vital to them.
Many privacy experts responded to Google’s announcement with skepticism because in order for websites to participate in Project Shield, they must give Google access to data on who visits their pages. Google’s critics are suspicious about the reasons behind the tech giant’s willingness to spend resources and bandwidth on helping mainly small, under-resourced websites stay online without any obvious financial gain.
However, the project’s early product manager, C.J. Adams was careful to assure users that Google has no plans to commercialize any data they gain from Project Shield. Instead, he claimed that Google’s only interest in protecting news websites was in keeping with its central purpose: to help users find the information they need on the internet then ensure they can access that information.
Project Shield is only one of several projects subsidiary Jigsaw (recently renamed from Google Ideas) are working on to help tackle current global political challenges through technology development. Google’s parent company, Alphabet has a number of subsidiary companies, some of which are not focused primarily on generating profits but on fulfilling Google’s wider goals through research and development. Among them, Jigsaw is the one least expected to generate any revenue.