Google and China: What's the real story, and where does it go from here?

New Radar contributor Mac Slocum will be joining O’Reilly as Managing Editor, Online on February 1st.

Google’s decision to lift censorship on its Chinese search results, and perhaps
shutter operations in China altogether, initially looked like
straightforward action-reaction: you hack me, I’ll retaliate. But
there’s more going on here. Google’s public
was the first sign. Elevating the matter into a free
speech/human rights issue was the second.

Here’s a key sentence from Google’s blog

We have taken the unusual step of sharing information
about these attacks with a broad audience not just because of the
security and human rights implications of what we have unearthed, but
also because this information goes to the heart of a much bigger
global debate about freedom of speech.

That’s strong language for Google, and it ventures beyond the
company’s comfort zone. The tone starts to make sense, however, when
you consider the pattern
of alleged espionage
reported by ComputerWorld.

There’s broader implications at play here as well. James
Fallows discusses the international repercussions at The Atlantic

China … seems to be entering its Bush-Cheney era. For Chinese
readers, let me emphasize again my argument that China is not a
“threat” and that its development is good news for mankind. But its
government is on a path at the moment that courts resistance around
the world. To me, that is what Google’s decision signifies.

The most concise commentary came via a translated
) that was featured in a New
York Times article

“It’s not Google that’s withdrawing from China, it’s China that’s
withdrawing from the world.”

Radar’s contributors are engaged in a lively back-channel conversation
about all this. As the discussion unfolded, we realized that Radar readers could find it
useful, so we’ve included a condensed version in this post. As you’ll see, there’s a lot to talk

Shortly after Google published its post on Tuesday, Nat Torkington started
things off by questioning Google’s real motivation:

I’m still grasping to see the story behind the story. I don’t think
Google really cares that much about free speech. Well, individuals
might care at a personal level very deeply but I just don’t see any
large company (“EVEN GOOGLE!”) cutting off a big revenue source just
for the free speech rights of democracy activists. Call me jaded, but
I’m looking for the squeeze behind the scenes that this move actually

Is it a way to turn the closing down of an unprofitable arm into a
public relations win? Is it a way of putting pressure on another

I guess what I can’t see is the specific negotiation that will happen.
Is it going to be, “stop attacking us and we’ll stay”? China won’t
admit that, much less guarantee it won’t happen. And if Google goes,
searchers will use Baidu
, which is already the largest search
engine in China. No big loss, it’s not like Boeing threatening to pull
out of Seattle. Is there another deal (“let us into your telco market
and we won’t shame you publicly with the hacking evidence we gathered
that links your foreign department directly with cyberspying, we’ll
just say your machines were gateways for Russians”) that’s the real

Marc Hedlund looked
at Google as though it’s a country. He coined a trademark-worthy
phrase in the process:

I think Google effectively has a foreign policy now. They have had
nothing much to hold over China and have acted as a supplicant asking
for access to their market. Now they’re saying: “F*** that, we have
something you want. You have to treat us differently if you want to
get it.” Now the ball is in China’s court to decide whether they want
the investment of the most powerful tech company in the world in their
country, or not. That very dramatically reverses the flow of the
conversation they’ve had about China so far …

Google is placing a very big spotlight on China’s activities and
declaring them unacceptable. They’ve said that not only Google but
tens of other companies were affected. They are, I think, asking the
world to view China’s activities in the most negative light possible;
asking for international condemnation of bad acts. That has worked
before. It may be that some people at the company, even some of the
founders, are motivated to take that stand for ethical reasons; others
because it makes any future negotiation with China much different and
possibly better; others because of purely economic analysis; I have no
idea. But it kind of doesn’t matter. The combination of motivations is
enough to turn them down an interesting road.

If code is law then hacks are war, and Google is acting like
a state in this case (as they did, to a lesser extent, in resisting
U.S. subpoenas for search data
several years ago). That’s
, to co-opt the term. [Emphasis added –

Jesse Robbins
considered morality’s competitive advantage:

It seems like exiting a market they [Google] were losing allows them
to transfer to an unbeatable moral high ground everywhere else. If I
were them, it would be moments before I started saying “We got out of
China because we care about human rights. We’re not evil. However,
Microsoft and Yahoo believe that market share is more important than
human rights …”

Jim Stogdill
placed Google within a military context, and in doing so revealed the
friction between old defense structures and cyber threats (he also
uncovered a new use for Google

The more I think about this, the more interesting it gets. I mean,
imagine SAP publicly threatening to pull out of the U.S. because they
think they are being attacked by U.S. government cyber forces (or with
their tacit approval). But people sort of shrug and expect this from
China. Will there be a point as China continues its internationalist
integration where this just becomes too bad for its “brand” to let it

Second thing that is fascinating is that, as Marc points out, this is
essentially warfare. Yet it’s Google defending itself and having to
take the initiative to discover and then coordinate with its
co-warriors. No gun boats coming up the Yangtze to defend U.S.
interests this time around. When you combine Title
with current DHS /
DoD organization for cyber
warfare it’s as if the gunboats are there, but they only exist to
defend gun boats.

In 1948 the USAF split out of the Army because everyone recognized
that having the organization and machines of air war working for
generals schooled in infantry tactics made no sense. I wonder if cyber
is going to eventually have its own slightly different 1948-like
moment, because what we are doing right now doesn’t seem to make any
sense at all. If we defended in the air like we defend in cyber, DHS
would have its own airplanes and defenses for CONUS
defense, the Air Force would have airplanes but only to defend
expeditionary Air Force bases, and every company in America would have
its roof bristling with anti-aircraft guns and missiles for point
defense. There would be no NORAD or broad tools of
situational awareness. Instead, U.S. companies would coordinate
situational awareness amongst themselves during an attack by using
Google Wave or something.

The health care debate usually revolves around the questions “What is
the role of government? What problems are problems for government?”
Gov 2.0 asks the question “How can government provide platforms for
coordination, cooperation, etc.?” I think these questions aren’t being
effectively asked in the cyber domain. We seem trapped in
organizations and constructs that were developed for air, land, and
sea and don’t seem to have the vision or the will to apply new
constructs to this space.

I attended a talk by someone from a major telecom network provider a year or so ago and they were
saying “we route the packets, we know what is happening, but we can’t
tell anyone because if we even hint at the fact that we know what you
are doing with the network, privacy nuts will go crazy. However, if we
could work together with the other network providers and do this stuff
right we could provide global network situational awareness.” That
seems like a perfect place for government to do a platform play and
then make the output of it available for all to see (and link to to
use in real time).

Extending the defense thread, Mike Loukides
challenged the notion that “cyber” and “real” are separate:

At some point, data and physical objects are entangled
enough that there’s no discernible difference. A few years ago, some hacker
got into the remote highway signs in Connecticut
— just posted
some stupid message like “DOT Sucks” — but he could just as easily
have told everyone that I-95 was closed. Almost as good as taking out
a bridge, but a lot easier. Taking out a bridge would cause a
long-term problem, while announcing that the highways were closed
would only be effective for a morning — but you can’t take out a
bridge from the comfort of your bedroom.

Note: This is a condensed version of the full email thread.
Contributors gave us permission to publish their thoughts.