Google and China
Censorship and hacker attacks provide the epitaph for Google in China
“WE’RE in this for the long haul,” wrote a Google executive four years ago when the company launched a self-censored version of its search engine for the China market. Now Google says it might have to pull out of the country because of alleged attacks by hackers in China on its e-mail service and a tightening of China’s restrictions on free speech on the internet. Its change of heart, as the company rightly points out, could have “far-reaching consequences”.
Google’s “new approach to China”, as the company’s chief legal officer, David Drummond, called it on January 12th on the company’s official blog, will certainly infuriate China’s government. The authorities are sensitive to foreign complaints about internet controls in China. In November, during a visit by President Barack Obama, his obliquely worded criticism of Chinese online censorship was itself censored from official reports. If it does close down in China, Google would be the first big-brand foreign company to do so citing freedom of speech in many years.
Mr Drummond’s blog-posting also contained unusually direct finger-pointing by a foreign multinational at China as a source of hacker attacks. It said that in mid-December Google detected a “highly sophisticated and targeted attack” on its corporate computer systems “originating from China”. It found that at least 20 other large companies from various industries had also been attacked. A primary goal, of the hacking of Google, it said, appeared to be to gain access to the e-mail of Chinese human-rights activists who use Google’s “Gmail” service. The hackers succeeded in partially penetrating two such accounts.
“Third parties” had also, wrote Mr Drummond, “routinely” gained access to the Gmail accounts of dozens of other human-rights advocates in America, Europe and China itself. Unlike the mid-December attack, these breaches appeared to involve “phishing” scams or “malware” on users’ computers rather than direct attacks on Google’s systems. All this, he said, along with attempts over the past year to impose further limits on free speech on the web, had led Google to “review the feasibility” of its Chinese business.
The company has decided to stop censoring the results of its China-based search engine, Google.cn. Mr Drummond said this might result in having to shut down Google.cn and Google’s offices in China. In the face of much criticism from Western human-rights advocates, Google justified its decision to set up Google.cn in 2006 by pointing out that China often blocked its uncensored engine, Google.com. Better to offer a censored service (with warnings to users that results were filtered), the company argued, than nothing at all. China would certainly not allow an uncensored search engine to be based on its territory.
Google’s decision at the time was presumably driven in part by the lure of China’s rapidly expanding internet market. In part because of intermittent blocking of Google.com, and the slowness of access to the company’s foreign-based servers, Baidu, a Beijing-based company listed on America’s NASDAQ exchange, dwarfed Google’s share of the search-engine business in China. The launch of Google.cn did little to dent Baidu’s domination.
Nor has Google’s acquiescence in self-censorship of its searches made China any less wary of its other, uncensored, services. Google’s video-sharing site, YouTube, has been blocked since March, because of footage of Chinese police beating Tibetan monks. Its photo-album site, Picasa Web Albums, suffered the same fate soon after. Access to Google’s blog service, Blogger, has long been intermittent. It is currently unavailable in Beijing.
Google’s frustrations are widely shared. In the build-up to the Beijing Olympics in August 2008, China lifted longstanding blocks on several websites, as it tried to present a more open image to foreign visitors. Since then, controls have been stepped up to unprecedented levels. Internet access in the western region of Xinjiang has been all but cut off since ethnic riots erupted there in July.
The unrest also prompted a shutdown of foreign social-networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. The role of such sites in protests in Iran, after its stolen elections in June, had already alarmed the government. Its fear of dissent around the 60th anniversary in October of the founding of communist China prompted even greater vigilance against sensitive debate online. But there has been no sign of relaxation since then. In recent weeks the authorities have tightened restrictions on the registration of websites under the .cn domain name (only businesses may apply). A crackdown on internet pornography has led to closer scrutiny by internet service providers of non-porn websites.
In December Yeeyan, a site with translations of articles from foreign newspapers including the Guardian and the New York Times, was closed for several days. It was allowed to reopen after putting tighter controls in place on the publication of politically sensitive pieces. Ecocn, a site offering translations of articles from this newspaper, was also briefly shut down as officials trawled for pornography, but resurfaced unscathed. The volunteers who run this informal operation make translations of sensitive articles available only to users they trust.
The anti-porn drive turned up the heat on Google too. Last year Google.cn was among several search engines in China accused by the authorities of providing links to pornographic sites. The state-controlled press gave particular prominence to Google’s alleged transgressions, which the company promised to investigate. The Chinese media have also published frequent criticisms in recent months of Google’s alleged violations of Chinese copyrights in its Google Books venture.
In Silicon Valley, its home, Google’s change of tack in China was widely applauded. But some were asking whether it was “more about business than thwarting evil” to quote TechCrunch, a widely read website. Besides pointing to Google’s failure to eat into Baidu’s market share, cynics noted that, whereas, according to Mr Drummond, Google’s revenues in China are “truly immaterial”, its costs are not. It employs about 700 people in China, some of them royally paid engineers, who may now may have to look for other jobs. Hacker attacks and censorship, critics say, are convenient excuses for something Google wanted to do anyway, without appearing to be retreating commercially. Google strongly rejects this interpretation.
In China, however, the government is clearly fearful that the company’s public stand against censorship will be celebrated by many Chinese internet-users. Chinese news accounts of the company’s decision failed to mention the reason for Google’s actions. Chinese web portals buried the story. Many internet-users in China have become adept at finding ways of circumventing China’s blocks on overseas websites, including the installation of “virtual private network” software. Numerous tributes to Google that rapidly appeared on Chinese internet discussion forums, and flowers laid outside Google’s office in Beijing, showed that the attempts at censorship had failed. Few, however, believe the company’s announcement will dissuade China from keeping on trying.
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