(A chapter in a story)
It was raining hard in the Bay Area the day he finished teaching his class in computer science at Stanford and drove down to the headquarters of the Global Freedom Foundation in Los Gatos. It was in a building that was modern in the mid-90s but needed a lot of work in 2019. There were cracks in the asphalt of the parking lot, and it had the feeling to him of something bypassed by the computer revolution just a few miles away in Silicon Valley.
Fighting for Internet freedom against censorship from China is not a very profitable business, he thought to himself as he got out of his car and ran towards the front door of the building in the harsh rain. It was just one of those thoughts that came unannounced to his mind and was quickly gone. Like fading bubbles in a champaign glass.
He knew that the goal of the Global Freedom Foundation was to support technologists and activists who brought life to ideas that advanced access to global communications networks and counteracted censorship and surveillance. He knew they attempted to mitigate digital security threats to Internet freedom for at-risk-users such as journalists, human rights defenders, civil society activists and others living in repressive environments. He knew that GFF prioritized projects from individuals or organizations applying for the first time, identified as under-represented within the field, and address areas that were underfunded.
Yet he had been suspicious of them since he had heard of them and his trip to make a presentation in front of their board was one he had mixed emotions about. He read about the GFF board and its founder. None on the board were from China and had experienced the brutality of Chinese censorship when they were growing up. All seemed “do good” idealists more involved with the grand-sounding idea of fighting censorship but not with its realities. But he needed money to get his project off the ground and as far as he could determine, they were the key player in the game for finance at this time for his idea.
* * *
The inside of the building was like entering a building holding several dental offices. It was the type of building he had been to before. He walked down a long hallway to a door that said Global Freedom Foundation on it and went into the office of the GFF.
He was greeted by an Indian man named Gupta Romane who was the chairman of the GFF. He led him into another room where the six board members of the GFF sat around an oval table. Most were millennials with a few in their fifties like Romane. Perhaps like a lot of entrepreneurs today, one of his addictions was watching the television show Shark Tank and he felt much like a contestant on Shark Tank begging for money for a start-up venture.
The members of the board sitting around the table were a mix of ages and demographics. He had read up about each of them. Most were idealist with little experience in the business world. They considered what they were doing as the most important thing in the world yet they had little clue on how it might support itself. He had read up on the GFF and knew that their financial backers were somewhat of a blur and hard to define.
He sat down at the oval table and waited for Gupta Romane to begin the meeting and introduce him as one of the leading computer science professors at Stanford. This had little effect on the board around the oval table. But then, he didn’t expect it would have any effect.
In a few seconds, he stood in front of the group and pleaded his case.
* * *
“In response to pro-democracy movements and the work of Internet freedom activists, nation-state level censors have increased their efforts to wall off entire populations from the rest of the world,” he tells the GFF board. “As all of you know, I grew up in China and saw the vast tragedy of censorship. By limiting access to outside information, tools, and apps, repressive regimes like China further tightens government control and prevents dissident voices from gaining traction.”
“We’re certainly aware of your background,” one of the GFF board members says. “But there are many efforts to battle global state level censorship.”
“Yes many,” he agrees. “But all these efforts start with the wrong premise. Researchers and developers labor tirelessly to counter antidemocratic moves by regimes like China by manually developing methods to evade this censorship. Yet it is a back-and-forth game and one that inherently favors better-financed regimes like China. There is a huge gap in resources, and it is widening all the time. The ability to circumvent censorship effectively and sustainably has become more difficult in recent years.”
“Your idea to fight the censorship is different?” another one of the GFF board members asks.
“I want to shift the imbalances of this evade-detect cycle by harnessing the power of AI to automate the discovery of censorship evasion strategies,” he says. “The program I envision for my system is to create genetic algorithms to train against real-world censors in authoritarian states like China, India, Iran and Kazakhstan. I think there are many previously unknown strategies that can enlisted to defeat state-level censorship.”
He walked around the oval table where the seven members of the GFF board sat and handed out a paper titled “Using AI, Genetics and Open Source in Battling Global State Censorship.”
“The paper you have in front of you is from the 15th Annual Internet Censorship Conference in London a few weeks ago in November of 2019. It was put together by my team at Stanford and MIT. It received much endorsement at the conference. You might have seen it on the Internet but the paper you have in front of you is the latest version of it. I think it provides an up-to-date idea of what we want to do.”
The members of the GFF board shuffle through the pages of the paper in front of them.
“Give us a few weeks,” Gupta Romane says.
“Fair enough,” he says.
* * *
The rain had not let up on his drive back up 101 to Stanford.
Maybe they will get it, he thought to himself. But there was a distinct possibility they would have little idea of what he was talking about. Groups like the GFF were out there all over the place to suck money up and do very little about the problems of censorship in the world. He had heard that they granted money to projects from journalists, human rights defenders, civil society activists and others living in repressive environments. It was all good and fine but none of it involved using that latest computer technology to defeat censorship like his idea.
They had all heard about his experience of growing up in China. Knew the basic details. Yet none of them could ever really know about this experience. The feeling of having information of the outside world cut off. Living in isolation of the movement of the world outside China. They had heard how his parents and been murdered getting him out of China. Yet none of them could conceive the brutality of the murder. How they were killed right in front of him right before getting on the plane that took him to the United States.
Yes, the GFF was involved in helping activists around the globe fight repressive censorship. They did an adequate job he thought to himself. They listed the grants they had make on their web: journalists, human rights defenders, activists and others living in repressive environments. Yet the real Chinese censorship was far more than this. It was an overriding philosophy of life that overtook everything else and blocked out the light of truth like a constant solar eclipse creating a strange new type of light in the world.
He had his doubts whether his brief appearance in front of them and his paper would convince them of anything different than their current efforts to fight censorship. This was their comfort zone it seemed to him and they weren’t anxious to move from this.
See our post to Midnight Oil called Geneva at https://midnightoilstudios.org/2021/12/14/geneva/. It is the true story of the greatest battle of Chinese censorship in the modern world. This story is based on the vision and ideas of Geneva.