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Unintentional Interfaces: Google Reader’s Censorship-Busting Power Will Be Hard to Replicate

Google’s brand name made Reader work in Iranians’ favor.
March 14, 2013

Journalists and other professional nerds are angry that Google is snuffing out its moribund RSS software, Reader. But as Quartz’s Zach Seward points out, plain old normal folks in Iran used Reader quite a bit to get around internet censorship. And those users won’t be helped by the Reader clones popping up in its wake, because Google Reader’s unintended power as an anti-censorship interface flows from its “Google” pedigree, not its “Reader” functionality. 

Google Reader’s use of HTTPS makes it more difficult for censors to block than normal web traffic, which helps (sort of). But the bigger foot that Reader keeps shoved in the censors’ door is the domain itself. To cut off Reader, as Seward writes, “Iran would probably have to block all of Google and its many popular services in order to keep its citizens from using Reader.” [See update below.] Even the censors don’t want to do that, at least not now. So Reader persisted, an obsolete product providing unintentionally vital value to Iranians by riding like a remora on the rest of the shark. Until July 1 2013, when Google does what the censors couldn’t, and scrapes the remora off. 

Google is a business, not a public utility, and its decision to kill Reader makes business sense. But was maintaining Reader really so much of a drain on Google’s vast resources that it couldn’t have let the little remora keep hanging on as long as possible, as a kind of pro-bono, “don’t be evil” brand-burnishing project? Google didn’t design Reader to be used this way, and couldn’t have predicted that it would be, but there it is. Why extinguish the benefit? 

Reader came out of Google Labs, which spun out interesting (or random) applications and inventions at a semi-alarming clip until Larry Page took over as CEO and shut it down. Labs didn’t make much sense as a revenue-generating division. But what it was good at, with its “throw spaghetti at the wall” non-strategy, was creating opportunities for unintentional interfaces to emerge and catch on – ones that, like Reader in Iran, could potentially fulfill Google’s “don’t be evil” moral imperative more clearly and cleanly than their on-purpose products do. (Of course, Google has been badly burned by unintentional UIs as well.)

But Labs is gone, and so is Reader. That domain, though, is still as huge a boot in the door of Iran’s censors as it ever was [not necessarily for technical reasons, see update below]. Politicians often attach controversial “riders” to popular legislation because they know that their opposition won’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Google has been passively exercising similar power in Iran with Reader for a very good cause, and it’s a shame that it will come to an end. But maybe it’s a moment of opportunity for some Googlers to seize with their 20% time: what new thing on the edges of might ride on it to do some unplanned good? 

Update: I spoke to The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Director for International Freedom of Expression Jillian C. York, who pointed out that it’s not technically difficult for Iran to block Reader without taking down other Google services. (“They can screw up, of course,” she added.) Google Translate offers similar access around censored content by acting as a proxy. Google Reader offered much more convenience, she said, and an alternative US-based RSS reader set up in the same way could offer that same convenience. “The problem is, how would Iranians find out about it? They’re resourceful, but it’s a huge inconvenience,” she said. In other words, the Google brand name is a significant part of that “unintentional interface” effect that helped Reader be a popular tool for circumventing censorship in that country. Replacing Reader in that regard would take more than just cloning the functionality. Would you have to be Google, and deliver it from a URL, to pull that off? Not necessarily. But if interfaces are culture, then being Google certainly helps. “It’s just like here: [Google] is popular, it’s trusted,” York said. “Which is why it’s unfortunate that Google would cut off so many users who use [Reader] this way.” 

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