Google discovered recently that some of its servers, as well as the servers at 34 other companies were attacked in a sophisticated cracking campaign originating in China. As far as Google’s services were concerned, the attacks seemed to be targeted at trying to access the e-mails of Chinese human rights activists, and Google’s intellectual property. The attack on the former failed, but the attack on the latter apparently succeeded. Google announced after this discovery that it is removing censorship measures on google.cn, their Chinese search service, and they acknowledged that they are facing the prospect of being forced to leave China altogether. Wow! Now, I understand that this was discussed as a business decision, probably from a security standpoint, but I think that this burnishes Google’s image, nevertheless, of “not being evil”. China’s government and business environment are not compatible with Google’s corporate culture. This isn’t the first time that Google has gotten harassed, apparently. The conflicts with the Chinese government have gone on a long time, partly, Google suspects, at the behest of its competitors.
Here’s a link to video of a news segment on this on the News Hour with Jim Lehrer.
Ethan Zuckerman made a good point that Google was blamed for moving into China and agreeing to their censorship guidelines, but they’ve been less stringent on internet communications, and have been more willing to do things the Chinese government doesn’t like, than Google’s competitors, such as Microsoft and Yahoo. The reason they got beat up on more than the others is that Google began with the motto “don’t be evil”. None of their competitors had such a mission statement.
I was originally opposed to Google entering China a few years ago for these reasons. However, apparently Google offered enough openings for human rights activists in China so they could use Google’s services to organize and exert some power in Chinese politics. I hadn’t heard of this until now. It turns out they offered private GMail accounts to Chinese users, based in a U.S. server, and this was one avenue that activists have been using.
Now, these same Chinese activists are worried that Google may be forced to leave, thereby removing a powerful tool they had in advancing their causes. I do feel for these people.
I feel in a strange way after hearing this news that if it took Google continuing the censorship to stay so that Chinese activists would have something that they could continue to use for their causes, then I’d say “bring on the censorship!” It’s better than nothing, and I’m now realizing that this was probably Google’s calculation all along. But I think the jig is up. Probably not even that would repair this situation. As I read about this it felt like the situation with NBC, Conan O’Brien, and the Tonight Show. Basically, “I have to leave, because these bozos want me to do something that will betray my sense of integrity.”
Edit 5-22-2010: I was informed yesterday by Tammy Bruce that despite what some might have heard, Google has not left China. Instead they have relocated to Hong Kong, and have managed to set up what I’d call a “beach head” where they are not censoring their searches. This does not mean that most Chinese have unfettered access to information. From what I hear the Chinese are blocking Google, though my guess is this is not total, or else they would have no choice but to leave entirely.