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 google.cn 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 google.cn 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!