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 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.
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 Google.cn 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?
January 13, 2010; 9:54 AM ET
Categories: Policy and politics , Security
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