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Google threatens to log off from China over hacking attempts

Google is fed up with the government of the People's Republic of China and may walk away from the entire country if things don't improve.


Google laid out its cards in a quietly angry blog post yesterday afternoon titled "A new approach to China." The post related how the Web-search giant had first detected hacking attempts from China against its own computers and those of other large companies, then found evidence that these attacks were intended to hack into Gmail accounts used by advocates -- in China and elsewhere -- of human rights in the communist-ruled country.

The Mountain View, Calif., company declared that it could not continue business as usual in China under those conditions:

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, 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, and potentially our offices in China.

Google's share of the search market is far smaller in China than in the U.S. -- just 33 percent. But even a small slice of the Chinese market today, much less five years from now, is not something any Web company would normally give up lightly.

That's why Google agreed to government censorship of its Chinese-hosted site four years ago. It defended its concessions as a justifiable compromise that would increase the amount of information available to Chinese Internet users but keep such more sensitive services as Gmail and Blogger out of the country and away from Beijing's jurisdiction. (Cisco Systems, Microsoft and Yahoo preceded Google into China and had gone considerably further in complying with the government's requests; Yahoo then compounded its problems by trying to pass off particularly craven excuses for its conduct.)

After three years -- and multiple instances of intimidation and worse by Chinese authorities -- Google has reconsidered that judgment.

Part of its rationale may be economic, in the sense that a company as reliant on "cloud" services as Google can't afford to tolerate attacks on any of its Web sites. But the overriding sense of that blog post, when read in the context of its frustrating and less-than-successful attempts to do business in China, is one of simple exasperation: After so many instances of Beijing altering the deal, the company's tolerance had run out.

Regardless of Google's precise motives, as a fan of plain speaking I must admire the company telling the Chinese government to knock it off in such direct terms. When's the last time you ever saw a company suggest it would have to tell an entire government "you're fired"? And when was the last time one American company could create a foreign-policy crisis with a single blog post?

For other perspectives on Google's move:

* Scholar and activist Rebecca MacKinnon summarizes reactions in China; some Internet users seem depressed over the prospect of its departure, though others are taking the government's side. Remember that there are historical reasons for the Chinese to resent foreign involvement in their country's affairs.

* The Atlantic's James Fallows -- until recently, a Beijing resident -- notes that tech-savvy Chinese citizens can easily get to foreign search and news sites and suggests that the main impact of Google's move will be to put China's leadership under a harsh spotlight.

* Beijing-based blogger Jeremy Goldkorn observes in a piece for the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper that "I can't recall a single case of a major international company with operations in China taking a stand like this."

What's your take on this? Has Google finally remembered its "Don't Be Evil" motto, is it doing the right thing for selfish reasons, or is it just grandstanding?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  January 13, 2010; 9:54 AM ET
Categories:  Policy and politics , Security  
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It's worth pointing out that Google has revenues of $21 billion and Baidu, who 'owns' search in China has revenues of $450 million or so. Google makes in about a week and a few days what Baidu does in a year. Even if Baidu disappeared and Google took over completely, it's not really more than a rounding error for the Google books.

Posted by: idiparker | January 13, 2010 10:19 AM | Report abuse

I'm impressed, provided Google follows through on this.
It will be interesting to see what MS does given their
well documented lack of ethics and desire to win at any
cost using any method. MS may see this as an opportunity
to gain market share.

Posted by: dfolk1 | January 13, 2010 12:42 PM | Report abuse

kls1 wrote:
To anyone trying to compare either the U.S. or Google to China's government -- the very fact you're able to post your opinion online here without fear is such a huge difference that any comparison is irrelevant.

yes, absolutely

and even when Team Obama PUBLICLY solicits "informers" of those

DARING to criticize the Obama

be forwarded to the Official White House website

anericans were DISGUSTED by team obama

and Obama had to back down

ProCounsel-- Proudly ranked #1
forwarded by Informers to the Obama Informer White House Website as confirmed by cookies

Posted by: ProCounsel | January 13, 2010 1:51 PM | Report abuse

It's worth pointing out that Google has revenues of $21 billion and Baidu, who 'owns' search in China has revenues of $450 million or so. Google makes in about a week and a few days what Baidu does in a year. Even if Baidu disappeared and Google took over completely, it's not really more than a rounding error for the Google books.


true, NOW

but the Chinese potential market is larger than Europe and USA COMBINED

this is a big deal for Google

Posted by: ProCounsel | January 13, 2010 1:53 PM | Report abuse

I like Google's stand but....we'll probably get a shipment of toys with many coats of lead paint as a payback

Posted by: tbva | January 13, 2010 3:32 PM | Report abuse

Personally, I'm wary of Google's pervasiveness (and lack of transparency) in general, but I certainly applaud their stance against the Chinese government. I hope they don't shift their position--it would gain them some respect.

Posted by: krazykat23 | January 13, 2010 4:00 PM | Report abuse


"A senior Microsoft Corp. executive said that "Google would do disservice to Chinese people" by leaving China because Google censors its Chinese search results less aggressively than Chinese local competitor Baidu and other Chinese portal companies. A pullout by Google would strip Chinese Internet users of a good alternative, the executive said."'s_Most_Popular

Posted by: dfolk1 | January 13, 2010 4:34 PM | Report abuse

WashPo yanked one of my comments written in Chinese, for no good reason, with no explanation. China's not the only place censorship occurs.

Posted by: Nymous | January 13, 2010 6:05 PM | Report abuse

The collaborators finally realize just what kind of people they've been collaborating with.

Posted by: cmckeonjr | January 14, 2010 8:30 AM | Report abuse

Answering Rob's questions :
Of course, Google has had it with all the shenanigans of the Chinese communists. However, the main reason for the stand they are taking is that they cannot afford to be known as the ones who tolerate other countries intrusions into the email services Google provides. People would quickly stop using gmail.

And a comment : why am I not surprised at the actions of the Chinese communists ?

Posted by: observer31 | January 14, 2010 9:13 PM | Report abuse

@Nymous: The only way comments don't make it to this blog is if they get caught up by the spam filter. And the admin page doesn't show any spam comments detained. Either way, since this is an English-language publication, wouldn't it be a little more practical to write it that language?

- RP

Posted by: robpegoraro | January 15, 2010 6:21 PM | Report abuse

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