Google has thrown down the gauntlet to China by saying it is no longer willing to censor search results on its Chinese service.
The world’s leading search engine said the decision followed a cyber-attack that it believes was aimed at gathering information on Chinese human rights activists. It also cited a clampdown on the internet in China over the past year. Its statement raised the prospect of closing Google.cn and potentially its offices in China.
The Chinese government issued its first, cautious response several hours after the announcement, saying it was “seeking more information”. In a statement published via the state news agency Xinhua, an unnamed official from China’s state council information office the cabinet spokesman’s office added: “It is still hard to say whether Google will quit China or not. Nobody knows.”
The two sides spoke today. Google confirmed: “We have talked to the Chinese authorities and we will be talking to them more in the coming days.”
Google acknowledged that its decision to stop self-censoring “may well mean” the closure of Google.cn and its offices in China, a move that will have great impact on access to information and search marketing, as Google currently censor less than the market leader Baidu. This could be easily seen as an understatement, given that to launch Google.cn it had to agree to censor sensitive material, such as details of human rights groups and references to the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
The US government upped the stakes when it stepped into the row, with the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, urging the Chinese to respond to Google’s hacking claims.
Google was in contact with the US state department ahead of its announcement. Department spokesman PJ Crowley said: “Every nation has an obligation, regardless of the origin of malicious cyber-activities, to keep its part of the network secure. That includes China. Every nation should criminalise malicious activities on computer networks.”
In a post on the official Google Blog, the company outlined a “highly sophisticated and targeted” attack in December which it believes affected at least 20 other companies: “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.
“We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, 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.”
Human Rights Watch praised the decision and urged other firms to follow suit in challenging censorship. “A trans¬national attack on privacy is chilling, and Google’s response sets a great example,” said Arvind Ganesan, director of the group’s corporations and human rights programme.
In China, some websites carried accounts of Google’s decision, although they did not mention the cyber-attacks. News portals were reportedly told to downgrade the issue, although some articles were seen on major sites including Sina.com. But while many seemed to welcome the firm’s decision some left flowers at the entrance to its Beijing headquarters others attacked it.
One poster, Weiwoguyan, wrote: “Since you are in China you need to obey Chinese law … Do not use it to threaten China.” A prominent liberal blogger, Ran Yunfei, wrote on his blog: “Google leaving China is definitely not good news.” Comparing the decision to dissidents who choose to emigrate, he added: “Those are obedient citizens and [their choice] is satisfactory to the authorities.”
Google claimed the cyber-attack originated from China and that its intellectual property was stolen, but that evidence suggested a primary goal was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. Its inquiry had shown that, separately, the Gmail accounts of dozens of human rights advocates in China who are based in the US, Europe and China appeared to have been routinely accessed by third parties.
The company added that it was sharing the information not just because of the security and human rights implications “but because this information goes to the heart of a much bigger global debate about freedom of speech”. Acknowledging the potential consequences, it stressed: “This move was driven by our executives in the United States, without the knowledge or involvement of our employees in China.”
The message, headlined “A New Approach to China” and signed by David Drummond, senior vice-president of corporate development and chief legal officer, said the company launched Google.cn in 2006 in the belief that the benefits of increased access to information for people in China “outweighed our discomfort in agreeing to censor some results”. At the time Google promised to monitor conditions in China and reconsider its approach if necessary.
But Evgeny Morozov, an expert on the political effects of the internet and a Yahoo fellow at Georgetown University, questioned why Google had made such a decision after four years.
“They knew pretty well what they were getting into. Now it seems they are playing the innocence card … It’s like they thought they were dealing with the government of Switzerland and suddenly realised it was China,” he said.
Morozov said it was hard to see the logical connection between the security of human rights activists and Google’s self-censorship, particularly given that the firm had chosen not to comment on whom it believed to be responsible for the hacking.
In a CNBC interview, Drummond said: “I want to be very careful and very clear. We are not saying one way or the other whether the attacks are state sponsored or done with any approval of the state.”
Google has only a third of the search-engine market in China, which is dominated by the Chinese giant Baidu. Many companies in China use Baidu for their search marketing, whereas Google dominates internet advertising in the West. Although Google’s revenues have continued to rise, many analysts believed it was finding business hard going, particularly as it came under increased pressure from the government.
“There are two schools of thought on this. One says that this is a mere smokescreen of sanctimony meant to hide a retreat from a market Google was unable to conquer for business reasons … The other is that this is a true act of moral bravery,” said Kaiser Kuo, a Beijing-based expert on the internet.
In June, Google suffered intensive disruption to search functions and Gmail for over an hour, after authorities told it to scale back search functions.
Rebecca MacKinnon, an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong’s journalism and media studies centre, said her research showed Google had censored less than Baidu. Google’s decision “certainly sets an example in terms of a company trying to do what’s best for the user and not just whatever increases the profit margins”, she added. Search marketing and internet advertising have been growing in recent years in China, and the potential withdrawal of Google would see an increase in profit from advertising for Baidu and Yahoo.