Google, China and censorship

Patrick Miner

Two global powers, one the
largest Internet company and the
other the most populous nation,
are currently in a heated negotiation-
war. Google Inc. announced
Jan. 12 that it is considering withdrawing
from China, which, with
nearly 400 million Internet users,
is by far the largest Internet market
in the world.
Google, on its official blog, stated:
“In mid-December, we detected
a highly sophisticated and targeted
attack on our corporate infrastructure
originating from China that
resulted in the theft of intellectual
property from Google … we have
evidence to suggest that a primary
goal of the attackers was accessing
the Gmail accounts of Chinese
human rights activists … We have
decided we are no longer willing
to continue censoring our results
on, and so over the next
few weeks we will be discussing
with the Chinese government the
basis on which we could operate
an unfiltered search engine within
the law, if at all. We recognize that
this may well mean having to shut
down, and potentially
our offices in China.”
As of press time, Google is in
closed-door talks with the PRC government
over this issue. An investigation
is ongoing as to whether
the security breaches were tied
to the government. The Chinese
Communist Party, of course,
denies any involvement. White
House spokesperson Bill Burton
told reporters that President
Obama “continues to be troubled
by the cyber-security breach that
Google attributes to China … All
we are looking for from China are
some answers.”
Regarding the matter, Secretary
of State Hilary Rodham Clinton
released the following statement:
“We have been briefed by Google
on these allegations, which raise
very serious concerns and questions.
We look to the Chinese government
for an explanation. The
ability to operate with confidence
in cyberspace is critical in a modern
society and economy. I will be
giving an address next week on the
centrality of Internet freedom in
the 21st century, and we will have
further comment on this matter as
the facts become clear.”
The address mentioned above,
which Secretary Clinton delivered
Jan. 21, was planned before
the events involving the dispute
unfolded, but in the address,
Clinton didn’t tiptoe around the
China-Google dispute.
She said: “[T]echnologies with
the potential to open up access to
government and promote transparency
can also be hijacked by
governments to crush dissent and
deny human rights. … The Internet
has already been a source of tremendous
progress in China. … But
countries that restrict free access
to information or violate the basic
rights of Internet users risk walling
themselves off from the progress
of the next century. … On their
own, new technologies do not take
sides in the struggle for freedom
and progress, but the United States
does. We stand for a single Internet
where all of humanity has equal
access to knowledge and ideas.”
The full text of her speech is
available on the State Department’s
Web site.
In response to Clinton, a
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson
said that the U.S. is making
“groundless accusations” and
that they “insinuated that China
restricts internet freedom.” He
added, “This runs contrary to the
facts and is harmful to China-U.S.
The president and Clinton both
clearly stand behind Google, but
the dispute is very complex and
barriers between sides are fluid.
As per usual, oversimplification
of the matter is rampant in the
media. Back in 2006, when Google
formally entered the Chinese market
with the launch of,
the company agreed to censor its
search results in accordance with
Chinese law. This decision met
harsh criticism from those who
took Google’s unofficial “Don’t be
evil” motto to heart.
A company statement at that
time attempted to justify the
decision to enter the PRC: “While
removing search results is inconsistent
with Google’s mission,
providing no information (or a
heavily degraded user experience
that amounts to no information)
is more inconsistent with our mission.”
Now, most national U.S. media
are praising Google for standing
up to the “evil” Chinese government
and “The Great Firewall of
China”, but some of them do make
a nod toward this 2006 decision
and the view that when combined
with current statements, it leads to
charges of hypocrisy.
What is largely overlooked is
the manner in which arguments
from both sides are mismatched.
While the hacking may have
been motivated by a desire of
the responsible party to stifle dissent,
the end result is “theft of
intellectual property”, not restriction
of public access to information.
Google is essentially arguing
against its 2006 self.
The Internet giant is now planning
to keep both its research
center and mobile phone division
active in China. The former is
responsible for most of Google’s
revenue and the latter is very likely
to reap profits in the future
as China’s mobile phone market
expands. There are currently over
700 million cell phone users and
projections estimate there will be
over 1 billion by 2013.
Google has used this situation
as an opportunity to alter its moral
stance in China. The company can
appear to oppose censorship and
play the good-guy while still posting
profits in the Chinese market.
Google makes great products and I
use them every day, but Google is
still a profit-driven company that
will sometimes make decisions
based on money.
Last week, Clinton started her
address with a few welcoming
words. She commented that it is
always difficult to see audience
members when on stage because
of lighting conditions. Most likely
unintentionally, she then summed
up this entire debacle with her
remark: “The lights are in my eyes
and you are in the dark.