Google’s Bombshell

Update (1/14/2010): Verisign’s iDefense Labs traced the cyber-attacks on Google to a “single foreign entity consisting either of agents of the Chinese state or proxies thereof”. In response to Google’s statement and claims of hacking, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said, “China’s internet is open… China administers the internet according to the law. We have an explicit stipulation of what information and content could be spread over the internet.” That’s three lies for the price of one.

Google has announced that it will stop censoring results on its search engine, and may withdraw from the country altogether. This is the biggest development in the Internet filtering space in years, and it shows that Google’s statement that one can make money without being evil is taken seriously in the company’s headquarters. I have a few initial reactions, and will post a more considered response shortly.
First, it’s fascinating that the deciding factor was not censorship, but hacking and surveillance – Google apparently decided that Chinese monitoring of communications, and hacking of human rights activists’ Gmail accounts, was intolerable (at least in combination with censorship). To the company’s credit, they appear to have internalized the lessons Yahoo! learned so painfully from the Shi Tao debacle. Surveillance is a much harder problem to detect than filtering (where groups such as ONI operate as watchdogs), and hacking is difficult to trace. The combination appears to have been too much.
Second, it will be fascinating to see how China’s government reacts. Suppression of political dissent is a key objective of the CCP. Google has crossed a line in how China operates – differences of opinion are handled privately, not publicly. I think this is likely to draw a relatively harsh response – first, because Google has tossed down the gauntlet, and second, because they’ve embarrassed the PRC’s government. China works very hard to control the on-line information environment and part of the system’s power is its lack of visibility.
Third, I’ll be interested to see how other Western Internet firms react. This could either be a business opportunity (consider how Yahoo! handed over its China operations to Alibaba, a firm with no compunction about complying with censorship or surveillance requests) or a chance to follow Google’s lead and stand up for the corporate values most companies espouse.
Finally, imagine that stays up. Does Google’s decision make a difference? After all, filtered sites are still unreachable. I think that it does. As Sherlock Holmes put it, it’s the dog that doesn’t bark – when you know something is missing, you have a window into the deliberate decision of a sovereign (whether Google or China) to prevent you from accessing it. That alone is powerful.
Stay tuned! Props to many of my Internet Law students for bringing this to my attention – I’m proud of you!

2 Responses to “Google’s Bombshell”

  1. Here is Sec. of State Clinton’s statement on the Google issue.

    “We have been briefed by Google on these allegations, which raise very serious concerns and questions. We look to the Chinese government for an explanation. The ability to operate with confidence in cyberspace is critical in a modern society and economy. I will be giving an address next week on the centrality of internet freedom in the 21st century, and we will have further comment on this matter as the facts become clear.”

  2. Unfortunately for Google, their altruism in their China announcement has been questioned across the web as people point out that Google’s decision may be motivated more by business than anything else.

    As Professor Bambauer brought up in class, Google’s market share in China has not reached its Western levels, and appears to slipping in the face of China’s home grown search engines. Therefore, Google might have seen this as an opportunity to spectacularly burn its bridges in China, and get a bunch of good PR in the West by being seen to stand up to oppression.

    I don’t quite agree that Google was acting entirely out of its own self-interest, because it was still concerned with the attempted hacking of Chinese owners of Gmail accounts. That personal privacy focus may be at odds with their allowing Chinese censorship, but it does show they were not about to let their customers be totally surveyed by the government. (The fact that their leaving means their customers will have to use accounts, like Yahoo, leaves open the question of whether those customers will get the same protections from other companies)

    Some links on this side of things: