Two-thirds of the world population lacks access to the internet, and from Mark Zuckerberg's ambitious plan to connect the next 5 billion people to Google's floating internet balloons, private companies and governments alike are working harder than ever to expand access to the web.
But simply having an internet connection is not a guarantee of access to information: With censorship spreading through repressive countries, internet freedom declined for the fifth year in a row in 2015, according to a Freedom House report. As head of research and development at tech incubator Jigsaw, a subsidiary of Google parent company Alphabet, Yasmin Green develops products to cut through these barriers. We caught up with her and asked about the most pressing problems facing us as we race to connect the rest of the world.
VICE: What does Jigsaw do, and what makes its approach unique?
Yasmin Green: We use technology to solve geopolitical problems, but what is special about our approach is where we get our inspiration: directly from people who are on the front lines of conflict or oppression. There is not a product we make that didn't start with a trip to the field to understand the human experience and the role of technology within it.
Can you tell me about uProxy?
It's one of the projects we've been developing as part of our overall goal to end repressive censorship. It is essentially a tunnel built through national firewalls—the invisible borders that governments erect—so that people in those countries can have access to an open internet. There are proxies that exist already, but uProxy has special characteristics: It's an open-source project, which means anyone in the world can contribute code, and it's peer-to-peer, meaning you get your access to a free and open internet directly from someone you know, like a friend or family member, which means it's trusted. It is decentralized, so it doesn't show up on anyone's radar. It's about really giving people access to the free and open internet with just a few clicks.
"Access to information is a fundamental human right, and everyone in the world deserves to have that right."
Did you have a specific population in mind?
We want to build the tools that we can to help realize an internet without borders. We have this situation where three billion people are using the internet today, and the next three billion coming online are not going to be in the same environment—they aren't going to be in Palo Alto or Chelsea Market. They are going to be in places where conflict is rising and repression is really severe. So our mandate is to think about how you would develop products when you are thinking about the next three billion coming online, because their world is going to be ridden with conflict and oppression in the physical world, but those threats that are going to manifest online as well. We have the privilege at Jigsaw of taking this unique perspective on product development.
Does being from Iran inform your work?
I have lived in quite a few repressive environments, but being Iranian makes it acutely personal, because I have seen what a repressive government can do to the people. It means everything. It impacts not just people's ability to access information, but to access culture, and to communicate, even their livelihood—it is very personal for me.
How do you identify what regions to target or what conflicts to prioritize?
We travel all over the world to understand what is happening in different environments, but technology does not have borders, so I could develop a product for a user in Iran, and if that product is good, it will travel around the world. That is one of the really gratifying things about developing technology: You get to see it spread.
Where does Jigsaw fit in with Google's larger efforts to close the digital divide?
There is a lot of really important work around delivering access to the disconnected world. The question we ask—which is equally important—is what happens when the access is there. Are people safe and secure? Can they access a free and open internet? Or do we see the repressive and dangerous offline world manifest itself online in those areas? It is a really complementary function that we play at Jigsaw, which is trying to give people safe and secure access to an open web.
As more people become connected, what is the biggest change you expect to see?
I do think we are going to see some really profound changes in how the internet is used. We are going to see all of these geopolitical challenges that are age-old—like terrorism—mix with technology and the use of the internet, and we need to make sure our responses to those things include the internet; they have to be both online and offline.
What is the next big challenge facing internet freedom?
Recognizing that the internet is a fundamental human right, access to information is a fundamental human right, and that everyone in the world deserves to have that right. And we need to bring it to them.
Full disclosure: Jigsaw is sponsoring an upcoming series for VICE News.