Google in China: Devious, But Not Evil

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Google in China: Devious, But Not Evil

Internet search giant Google, famous for its informal motto, ‘Don’t be evil,’ drew fire in early 2006 when it decided to set up a censored Chinese-language version of its search engine.

By: Ben Smith

China has worked hard to provide Internet access to its citizens, but the open nature of the web does not lend itself well to the insular nature of the Chinese government. The Golden Shield Project, better known to Westerners as the Great Firewall of China, is a complex system of computer software that intercepts all traffic into and out of its boundaries. The intention is to block access by Chinese nationals to web sites that their government has deemed improper.

Google faced quite a dilemma in China. Since its stated mission is to catalog the world’s data, Chinese citizens could try to find censored information via Google instead of using a Chinese search portal. To counter this, China’s censorship system made its global site difficult to access. The site was inaccessible up to 10% of the time for many users, and that was not something that Google considered as a good user experience. Hence, its market share in the country suffered as a result.

In January 2006, Google announced that it had decided to create a division of the company to be located in China that would be responsible for its local operations. It would comply with local laws and would effectively censor any information mandated for censorship by the local government. When this announcement was made, the response was harsh. Many in the West felt that it was letting its desire for profit get in the way of its ethics.

As is the way with many such controversies, however, the furor died down and Google did what it had set out to do. For four years, it labored to grow its local market share and help bring relevant, but censored results to its users. In the event that a user’s search results were censored, a notice was displayed stating that some relevant results were not being served to the user, in accordance with the law.

Then in January 2010, it released a statement alleging that its computer systems had been the victim of a ‘sophisticated and targeted attack’ during the previous month, and that it had resulted in the theft of some intellectual property. Not only that, Gmail accounts belonging to human rights activists in China had also been attacked.

Because of this cyber attack, they announced that they were in the process of reconsidering their business operations in China. Most importantly, they stated that they were unwilling to continue censoring Internet searches on their local site. They also announced that they were going to begin talks with the Chinese government on what it would take for unfiltered search results to be served to users, while remaining within the law.

This was big news, to put it mildly. By the time it was attacked, the search engine had gained a 36% market share among local users. It was unprecedented for a company, with that large a web presence, to say it was no longer willing to censor search results. At the time of this article’s publication, nothing concrete has changed concerning Google’s censorship stance in China. It remains to be seen what will be done.

Many have speculated about the motivation behind the company’s announcement. Internet search giants have their systems attacked daily. For it to announce that it was changing its policies in China after being the victim of one successful hacking attempt seemed to be an overreaction. The two events did not even seem to be related. What did an attack on its systems have to do with censoring search results?

One possibility is that the Chinese government was behind the hacking attempt. Google may have wanted to send a strong message that they were unwilling to be pushed around.

The ancient Chinese text The Art of War contains the following quote: “Engage people with what they expect; it is what they are able to discern and confirms their projections. It settles them into predictable patterns of response, occupying their minds, while you wait for the extraordinary moment-that which they cannot anticipate.”

It may be that the management decided to enter China in 2006, as they knew that it was impossible to offer unfiltered results right away. It might be that they had been waiting for that ‘extraordinary moment’ to change their course in the country. It is possible that they have been building their market share and playing by the government’s rules on censorship because they were waiting for a chance such as this.

There is no way to know. The company cannot very well come out and state that this was their plan all along. It might be that their decision is precisely due to the reasons stated. However, Google is nothing if not logical, and it seems clear that the company would not go through the trouble of creating a presence, simply to abandon it because their systems were attacked. Likely there is a larger plan at work, and they knew that they could not gain everything they wanted upfront. They needed leverage to use, and it is possible that this attack has provided them what they need to begin to take a stance that perhaps they have wanted to take all along.

Perhaps this is what Google’s senior policy counsel Andrew McLaughlin meant in 2006 when he wrote, “a hard compromise may not feel as satisfying as a withdrawal on principle, but we believe it’s the best way to work toward the results we all desire.”

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