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Did Google Just Worsen China's Human Rights Situation?

google china

You'll be waking up this morning to frantic discussions all over the Internets about a surprising decision by Google to uncensor its service in China. The question is that, though uncensoring may be bold, did it actually make things worse?

In a blog posting yesterday Google explained exactly what's been going on: It seems that though Google, "like many other well-known organizations" faces regular cyber attacks, in the middle of December it detected huge and deep hacks into the "corporate infrastructure" resulting in "theft of intellectual property." Basically some very sophisticated attackers were trying to get into Google's code—possibly with the intent of using it to power their own search technology. But that wasn't the limit of the issue. As part of the investigation, Google turned up evidence that "dozens of U.S.-, China- and Europe-based Gmail users" have been routinely cracked by third parties via phishing or malware scams.

That's all deeply disturbing, and it's even attracted the attention of Secretary of State Hilary Clinton—who issued a brief press memo on the topic last night to air her "very serious concerns."

Google has both fixed the security issues and chosen to air the problems in public to shine a spotlight on them—which is a pretty unusual move. But not as unusual as the next one: Google also explains that "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." That decision means Google is "no longer willing" to censor results in accordance with the strict censorship demands of China's government.

Apparently Google's content to take the consequences of this. And this includes winding up operations in China if, as seems very likely, the government forces it to re-apply censor protocols with the threat of forcing it to shut down. It's almost as if Google's tempting the government to stamp on its Chinese operations, because, let's face it—the hard line authorities aren't going to bow to the whim of a U.S. company.

All of which seems like a revelation—the "evil" corporate giant Google saying "no more!" to an oppressive governmental regime. And, though Google never directly points the finger, its clear from the tone of the piece (and particularly the loaded word "surveillance") that it's actually blaming the Chinese authorities for the cyber attacks and Gmail hacks. Hooray for Google!

No. Don't shout that. Because this is Google, of course, and it's also likely that some business planners inside the company have done extensive analysis and decided that continuing operations in China just isn't going to be profitable. There are expensive security breaches to chase down and patch up, there's the risk that some of Google's secret search sauce will leak out and into someone else's code and there's a serious PR issue back home concerning the company's complicity in suppressing human rights. There probably wasn't much revenue from anyway, so all this bold "stick it to the Chinese government" maneuvering could also be seen as Google spinning a perfect PR moment out of a purely business-led decision.

And there's also the issue that Google's pull-out of China might make the overall human rights situation slightly worse. Because whether or not you approve of Google, while it was operating in China it was pushing for relaxations of censorship—using its size as a global giant to try to lever open some cracks in the censorship wall. And if it leaves the country, then what's to stop the Chinese government running roughshod over any other players in the Internet tech game—likely far smaller ones than mighty Google—and forcing them to comply?

[Via Googleblog]

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  • Andrew Marshal


    I think Google is refining more of its policies regional wise related to censorship. Search Engines like Google is in my opinion heading towards independence of websites for making its information more versatile.

  • Andrew Marshal


    I think Google is refining more of its policies regional wise related to censorship. Search Engines like Google is in my opinion heading towards independence of websites for making its informationmore versatile.

  • Andrew Marshal


    I think Google is refining more of its policies regional wise related to censorship. Search Engines like Google is in my opinion heading towards independence of websites for making its informationmore versatile.

  • DAvid Schnell

    blah blah blah who gives a rip?! turn off the computer and build some pecs why dont'yabunchaweasles.

  • Chris Reich

    When a company "does the right thing" or maybe I should say, rights thing, we should applaud and support that company. I say ignore the profit speculation. It's a good move.

    Chris Reich

  • Catherine Fitzpatrick

    You have *got* to be kidding! The Chinese government is responsible for censorship and other human rights abuse, not Google. Western states have proven far to weak and indebted to China to stand up for their own principles and have broken faith with the democracy movement inside of China, to its shame. Now, finally, Google is doing the right thing and standing up to China, because it is a power that *can* stand up to China, and thank God for it.

    But note that Google is doing this out of self-interest -- it wasn't the censorship per se or the interference with search that got Google to act, but ultimately, only technical encroachment of their own servers, which Google could not countenance. No matter. We've been served up this theory ad nauseum that only economic self-interest will gradually help change China as it moves to state capitalism and incrementally allows more freedoms. Many Silicon Valley businesses that are no different than China, Inc. in their philosophy have bought this line. Now let's see if it works to move Google and China -- it likely will, as regimes like this only understand force.

  • Rick Presley

    Not seeing the problem here. China loses access to one of the most valuable software commodities available - Google - and this somehow helps them? How so? Since when has decreased capability been an advantage for a country? Did post-Depression era Germany and post-Inquisition Spain derive a financial benefit from their anti-semetism? No. Instead they both faded from the scene as world superpowers. The strength of America is actually the lack of repressive government (by comparison anyway, if no longer historical trajectory) interference. China's rules serve only to isolate it and reduce its ability to be competitive on a global scale since it will no longer have access to the same tools the rest of us enjoy. The loss of GoogleMaps alone seriously diminishes its intelligence capability not to mention search capability. How is this anything but bad for China?

  • Terri Waterman

    Don't care WHAT you say, you can't undermine what a brave and awesomely COOL move Google made. I still remember finding them on the web when they first came on. Kudos to them for doing what is right and not letting themselves get caught in the political intimidation. We are all too big for that and should also have the courage to stick up for ourselves when our freedoms are being threatened. Serves China right for trying to be a global superpower and communist at the same time, makes no sense. The egos these people have, unbelievable. And trying to make this a money thing, Google doesn't need China, that's the big difference here. Whoo hoo!!!

  • Lisa Kaslyn

    I say...Hooray, Hooray, Hooray!!! We need more US companies to stand up and represent our country and what we value -- FREEDOM and the PURSUIT of HAPPINESS! I think you're taking a cheap shot at Google when you should be calling out others to stand tall and take America back to its Super-Power status and a nation that commanded respect from every world nation.

  • Tim Johnson

    I've always been suspicious of Google. I don't begrudge them the money they make, or that they make decisions based on their own corporate financial health, but it's always felt like Google was a sort of modern-day Wormwood, to a dangerous Big Brother-ish global Screwtape. I mean, they publicize spy satellite pix of us lying naked in our backyards and photos of our homes, including whatever is visible through our picture windows. They read our personal e-mail and use it to try to sell us stuff. So when they stand there with their smug "we-don't-own-the-whole-world-but-do-control-the-rights-to-it" smiles, I sometimes (cynic that I am) question their cute, fluffy little slogan: "Don't Be Evil."

    So is it possible this harmless corporate citizen is actually standing up to the world's most dangerous government in a bid to defend free speech, or is it more likely they are playing hardball to jack up the price of their privacy-invading technology?

    I'm just sayin'...

    Tim Johnson, President
    Coactive Brand Lab
    Brand Designer, Marketing and Communications Expert

  • Bill Ganus

    The title of the piece is eventually addressed with an overwhelming "maybe" in a short final paragraph. The vilification of Google is being used as a cheap way to draw readers. I expect more from FC. This is a very interesting story without Mr. Eaton's extremely speculative spin.

  • Mathieu Yuill

    So we shouldn't hooray for Google for doing the right thing because we're suspicious of their motivations. Okay Mr. Utopia.