Exactly Right, Google. Exactly Right

By  |  Tuesday, January 12, 2010 at 3:57 pm

For as long as western companies have been doing business in China–under Chinese laws–there’s been a fundamental question that’s been a subject of immense controversy: Are they helping to make China more free, or are they helping the Chinese government prevent more freedom?

Until now, Google has been one of a number of U.S. Web companies that has willingly provided a censored version of its services in China as a prerequisite of doing business there. It’s maintained that providing the Chinese people with access to some information is better than denying them access to Google entirely, and its Chinese search engine has carried a disclaimer that some links are suppressed.

But now that’s changing. In a fascinating blog post, Google has disclosed that it discovered a sophisticated hacker attack on its systems in mid-December. Its investigation revealed that the target was the accounts of Chinese human rights activists, and that the attack encompassed other large companies. It further found that the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists had been breached through such means as malware installed on their computers.

The blog post never explicitly says that the Chinese government is behind the attacks, but Google’s reaction makes clear what its conclusions are:

These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered–combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web–have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.

I’ve wrestled with the question of the western media’s involvement in China myself for years. Before I started Technologizer, I was the editor of PC World, a publication that not only has a Chinese edition, but publishes it as a joint venture with the government, with an on-the-premises government official in charge of monitoring its content. I thought that the good of the arrangement outweighed the bad, since the personal technology that PC World covers is playing such a significant role in improving the lives of the Chinese people.

But I’m very proud of the fact that Automattic, the creators of WordPress and the company that hosts Techologizer, has refused to censor WordPress.com blogs in China–which, as of my last visit to China in 2008, meant that the millions of WordPress.com blogs were all blocked by the Great Firewall of China. Not every blogging platform has taken such a firm stance in favor of freedom of speech. And oddly enough, I ran into multiple folks in Beijing who were smart enough to figure out how to bypass the government’s censorship and read Technologizer and other blocked western sites.

I remain positive that the west needs to engage China rather than cut it off; I’m not in favor of blanket boycotts. But I admire Google enormously for the actions it’s announcing today. Let’s see how its western competitors–some of who may also have been among those attacked–respond.


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9 Comments For This Post

  1. Bouke Timbermont Says:

    I fear this won’t play out to be significant: the Chinese government won’t give, so this will either result in Google exiting China or Google going back to censoring google.cn.

    I think the first option right now seems the most probable, and I hear many bloggers argue this might awaken the Chinese citizens… but it won’t: most Chinese citizens are very patriotic and will see this move by Google as smug, stubborn and anti-China.

  2. Paul Judd Says:

    I agree, while politically for Google it is good for them to take the high road, ultimately I (and most likely Google) think that Google’s presence in China is going away. The Chinese government is arrogant enough to think that they don;t need Google and simply opening up the floodgates is just going to result in an extra line in China’s firewalls. I don’t think that Google’s presence is enough to fundamentally change China’s view of free speech.

    I admire Google’s approach, but I don’t think we should think that this will change things in China – that would be folly.

  3. heulenwolf Says:

    I don’t mean to sound like a Google hater or raging conspiracy theorist, but it sounds like Google found their out. Censorship goes against their corporate culture and it must bother their engineering staff immensely and it does tarnish their reputation in countries valuing free speech that they’ve had to cave to the Chinese gov’t’s demands for google.cn. Having done so, however, now they have something other than their corporate culture to point at as their reason for backing out (or threatening to do so, which is all they’ve actually done).

    Google has proven their worth to the Chinese gov’t by going in under China’s terms and now they have a bargaining chip as they “review our business operations.” Chinese users, too, have both seen the usefulness of Google and found ways around their censorship (e.g. using a US-based proxy to get to Google.com) that they may not have bothered with if google.cn didn’t exist as a sort of gateway to the possible. Now that they’ve been there and been wronged, Google can put a moral face on a business action of renegotiating the terms of their presence to something more favorable. People often point out the value of being in China, given its 1B+ population, however given the incredibly uneven distribution of wealth in the population, most of that value is not yet realizable to an advertising company. Depending on how things go from here, caving to the gov’t’s demands, knowing that the gov’t or its loosely-linked hacker community would eventually abuse their power long before China realizes its economic potential, may have been a rather shrewd business moreso than moral decision from the get-go.

  4. Erik Says:

    “People often point out the value of being in China, given its 1B+ population, however given the incredibly uneven distribution of wealth in the population, most of that value is not yet realizable to an advertising company.”

    Do we know how much money Google makes in China? You seem to be assuming they don’t or can’t make much, and that it’s worth more financially for them to leave that market. But without any real numbers, how are we to know?

  5. Tom B Says:

    In the 1970’s, when Nixon made the epically poor decision to “open China”, the pundits said they would see how we live in the West and become “more like us”. Well, surprise, surprise, they’ve adopted the bad parts (profit at all costs– slave labor; toxic toys) and ignored the good parts (democracy, human rights).

    Google whatever its true motives– at least they have the spine to make some noise. That beats what our Government is doing, which is basically nothing. We accuse them of devalueing their currency while ignoring larger issues, like their illegal annexation of Tibet and the subsequent genocide.

  6. 1001webs Says:

    “People often point out the value of being in China, given its 1B+ population, however given the incredibly uneven distribution of wealth in the population, most of that value is not yet realizable to an advertising company.”

    The number of millionaires in China (with a net worth of $1 million) is expected to reach 800,000 in the next four years.

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