Google’s move was spurred by a highly sophisticated cyber-attack on it, and a number of other companies, that originated in China. One target of the cyber-attack was the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. Google initially went against its corporate ethos is agreeing to censor when it set up Google.cn, but the subsequent cyber-attacks looks to have forced Google to rethink its digression.
The response from China? “The Chinese government administers the Internet according to the law and we have explicit stipulations over what content can be spread on the Internet,” said Jiang Yu, spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry. And Wang Chen, director of the State Council Information Office said, “Effective guidance of public opinion on the Internet is an important way of protecting the security of online information.” In plain-speak: We like censorship. Censorship is the law. Violate the law and you’ll be punished.
Huang Jing, a visiting professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, said, “The Chinese government may want to give Google’s high-profile move the cold shoulder. Given the reason Google cited in its announcement--that Google.cn can no longer put up with Beijing’s censorship--the CCP leaders are afraid that it could set a dangerous political precedent should they compromise on this one.”
Google’s only other option would be to walk away from the Chinese market, something Google says it is prepared to do. At present that wouldn’t be much of a hit to Google’s bottom-line--it is reported to have earned $350 million in China in 2010, or about 1.5 percent of its total revenue. The future, however, is another matter.
In a blog post today, Google has revealed some details on what it says was an unusually coordinated series of cyber-attacks launched against it in December. The attacks, which originated in China, were apparently aimed at gaining access to the Gmail accounts of a number of advocates for human rights in China. Google says only two accounts appear to have been accessed, and even then only basic details like subject lines and date stamps were taken.
As part of their investigation, Google claims to have discovered that dozens of human rights activists the world over have had unauthorized individuals access their Google accounts. This was not part of the December attacks, but was likely the result of phishing. Google has apparently plugged the holes that were exploited, but they aren’t done yet.
The Google.cn domain was launched in 2006 when the internet giant agreed to censor some search results. At the time, Google indicated they would monitor the situation, and adjust their approach if needed. According to the blog post, “These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered--combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web--have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China.”
So starting now, Google says they will stop filtering search results in China. The Mountain View based company plans to discuss with the Chinese government the possibility of operating an unfiltered search engine. If that is not possible, the Google.cn domain may be shut down along with the Chinese Google offices. Is this a good move for Google? Should a commitment to free speech outweigh the lucrative nature of the Chinese market? Or maybe this move is just long overdue.