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
revelation
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
post
:

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
tweet
(original
here
) 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
about.

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
represents.

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
negotiation?

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,
Chinese
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
focus?

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
Government
2.0
, to co-opt the term. [Emphasis added –
Ed.
)

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
Wave
):

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
continue?

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
10
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.

  • Joe Hackman

    Hi Mac, I appreciate your efforts to promote thought on this subject. What is interesting to me is the issue of Google’s comfort zone. In general companies like Google don’t like to make geo-political waves (pun somewhat intended!) so it is a unusual and courageous step from that perspective. It is also clear that whether it is on principle or a strategic move it is still risky, so I would tend to think that makes it more of a principle issue. The future of China is a very interesting subject. In many ways they cannot loosen their control and grip without experiencing significant challenges and not loosening the grip will lead them to significant challenges. They are at a crossroads here, Google has done us all a favor in forcing them to make a decision.

  • steveplunkett

    RE: your highway signs…

    In Texas we used them to warn of coming zombie attacks.. (y’all have them too, right?)

    http://www.beersteak.com/breaking-news/zombies-austin-construction-signs-hacked/

    Google may haz all our datas… but right now.. i’m not sure there is anyone i’d rather have protecting it.

  • Akilan

    Google is an evil company that is looking to maximize its profits no matter what happens to free speech or anything/anyone else.

    Sometime back Google Maps marked Arunachal pradesh in India as Chinese territory at the behest of China.(Please remember that unilateral claims of territory is not enough to mark it “disputed” and Canada has claims over US territories which aren’t even marked “disputed” and 70% Arunachal pradesh people recently exercised their voting rights to choose a Chief-Minister under Indian Constitution.)

    Google is paid back in its own coin I guess. I don’t believe this ‘I’m doing this for free speech’ stunt. This is either a publicity stunt or arm twisting of China in a negotiation.

    PS: India responded by creating its own maps service. It does not believe in censoring anyone and everyone it doesn’t like.

  • petervan

    I did a blog on Google-China at http://petervan.wordpress.com

    2 hours later my blog was blocked from Myanmar

  • m metz

    In this era some companies are as powerful as some countries. Some suggest that multi-national global companies in the future might be more powerful than national governments. This is an interesting confrontation between a strong nation and one of the strongest companies, especially in tech. So in a cyber war, if one were to break out between China and Google, who would have the advantage?

  • ringlerun

    the pullout will have been ethical if its follwed up by proactive action as well. if its only a pullout, they are leaving the people of china at the mercy of the government, the government will have won and the chinese people lost… not something a company that is taking an ethical stand would want to do.

    lets see as time progresses what google’s real motivation is/was… i dare say, i am optimistic though, as after all, a corporation is run by people, people with hearts!

  • Not2sure

    I really don’t see what google and other telcos big deal is.

    They allowed monitoring of us citizens without a subpoena and no one seemed to care.

    They are somehow more interested in the rights of chinese citizens?

    Give me a break with all this govt 2.0 bullshit. They want something, didn’t get the response from the current administration so they take it to the court of popular opinion which is still under the belief that google cares for them and can do no wrong.

  • Shi Chuan

    I also feel bizarre about the whole event.

    If it’s about human rights issue, I believe the US gov also scan people’s personal data. It doesn’t make sense for them to aim China.

    If it’s a PR stun, then the cost will be very high, they are the second largest Internet Search Company in China.

    Can’t figure out what they want.

  • Assaf Stone

    @Akilan: Google is not evil. It is merely not a moral saint. The world isn’t black and white. Google refrained from entering the Chinese market for 3 years, because of the human rights issues, until 2006, when they believed they could no longer postpone the decision to do so. They have an obligation not just to the customers, but first and foremost to the share-holders. Business Ethics scholars believe that a company has a moral obligation to uphold the share-holders “positive” rights, and to avoid infringing on the rest of the _stake_ holders’ “negative” rights.

    Google is the only company of the three (Google, Microsoft and Yahoo), that chose to mitigate the damage they do to human rights, by (A) notifying consumers that the search results are limited, due to government imposed censorship, and (B) limit the services they provide in china to such services that do not require them to retain personal information, so that they cannot be forced to reveal them – as Yahoo! did in their case.
    BTW – Google’s mitigations were largely contested by the Chinese government, and Google resisted their demands to cease notifying consumers (A).

    In short, Google aren’t saints – saints can’t exist in a competitive market, but they definitely do what they can to uphold their morals.

    P.S. Just in case you wonder, as you might – I’m not a Google employee (I’d love to be, though, I hear the rec. center at the HQ is amazing), but a student who wrote a paper on just this subject.

  • Andrae

    I find the concept of a Company involving itself in foreign policy as a peer of minor states intriging, and not without precedent (East India Company anyone?). However, I find Jim Stogdill’s attempt to draw military analogies inept, and unconvincing. Not least because of his inaccurate depiction of the Army/USAF split; and his claim that the US Coast Guard doesn’t defend CONUS.

    Personally I don’t think enough attention has been paid to Google’s legal problems in Europe, and how forcing a confrontation with China both advances its position there, and is simultaneously a shot across the EU’s bows.