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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]