Google removes censorship on, may be forced to leave China

My first instinct to hearing this news (h/t to Bill Kerr) was, “About friggin time!” Here’s a permalink to Bill’s post on it.

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, 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.

2 thoughts on “Google removes censorship on, may be forced to leave China

  1. Mark –

    Google is hardly the idealistic company many wish it were. Here’s the reality. Google isn’t pulling out because they are taking a stand on censorship. They are pulling out because:

    * Their market share is crashing (from 17% to 14% recently), so it’s soon a losing proposition.

    * When other customers find out that their activities in China have made them a special target of hack attempts, no one wants to do business with them. As a company, would you host your documents or email with Google, knowing that the Chinese government is throwing its resources at breaking into Google? Especially when you know that the Chinese government would be glad to pass on your data to their local businesses?

    So yeah, while many are cheering Google for taking a “brave stand on censorship”, I recognize it for what it is: a smart business move that happens to look good to the fanbase.


  2. Hi Justin,

    I just thought it was striking that rather than licking the boots of the Chinese government after this happened they decided to remove all censorship on their search engine. Yeah, I’m sure it was done to try to get attention. I thought of it as a risky gamble. I would think that a company like Google would be fighting hard to stay in any market it could. Doing what they did makes that more unlikely. Much as they’d like to stay and compete, I imagine the Chinese government will not tolerate total removal of censorship.

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