Gathering thoughts on Google

Photo by Ng Han Guan/AP

It is safe to say most of us are all Googled out by now. Throughout 23rd March, news of the Internet giant’s dramatic exit from China after it suffered a Chinese-originated cyber attack flowed unwaveringly through feeds, blogs, social media platforms and mainstream news outlets. A total eclipse of Twitter seems to have passed slightly, giving a minute to gather some thoughts on the matter.

The big question, of course, is what are the implications of Google’s move? Business-wise, Google may have inflicted substantial self-harm by pulling out of China. An AP report suggests the company’s market value has been severely dented by the spat, with one analyst predicting a reduction of $10 billion to $15 billion, or $30 to $50 per share. Chinese powerhouses are also set to succeed thanks to Google’s exit.

But the other side of the coin is that these losses come with the territory of taking a principled stand against the demands of an authoritarian government.

For the liberals among us who advocate freedom of expression online, we have seen wider-reaching debates on the issue of censorship. The cyber attack that was the straw that broke Google’s back shed light on the intricacies of the Great Firewall and how far it is isolating China. The response from the US, in the form of Hillary Clinton’s staunch speech, has also helped spurred on a debate on both government and Internet companies’ accountability.

Although in its formative stages, this discussion has by no means been limited to Western commentators. Over the weekend, an open-source letter was published by a group of Chinese activists demanding clarity of the Google/China fiasco. Rebecca MacKinnon translated,

if Google.cn were to no longer exist, or if China were to further block other Google services, has the Chinese government considered how their blocking of foreign websites and censorship of domestic websites violates Chinese citizens’ right to scientific, educational, environmental, clean energy and other information? How will this loss be lessened or compensated for?

Netizens who may well have been apolitical prior to the events were jolted by Google’s tough stance. However, this must be kept in perspective. As MacKinnon says, the events reflect

a recognition that China’s status quo – at least when it comes to censorship, regulation, and manipulation of the Internet – is unlikely to improve any time soon, and may in fact continue to get worse.

The issue of censorship has been, and was always going to be, a non-negotiable for Beijing. The sophisticated techniques used to contain public opinion and the spread of information were always going continue regardless of whatever Google chose to do. An interesting question, as pointed out by C.Custer, is why have people stopped caring about the fact that Google was hacked? Speaking to James Fallows of The Atlantic, Google’s chief legal officer David Drummond clarified the events:

This attack, which was from China, was different. It was almost singularly focused on getting into Gmail accounts specifically of human rights activists, inside China or outside. They tried to do that through Google systems that thwarted them. On top of that, there were separate attacks, many of them, on individual Gmail users who were political activists inside and outside China. There were political aspects to this hacking attacks that were quite unusual.

That was distasteful to us. It seemed to us that this was all part of an overall system bent on suppressing expression, whether it was by controlling internet search results or trying to surveil activists. It is all part of the same repressive program, from our point of view. We felt that we were being part of that.

Playing the victim card (and rightly so) got Google little sympathy from China. The Telegraph’s Malcolm Moore spoke to a handful of Shanghai’s upwardly mobile middle class about the fiasco. One sales manager in their mid-twenties said,

Google should have complied and adapted, rather than swimming against the tide. It is really a shame that it has now decided to go, but I do not think it will have a long-lasting effect on us.

A government official in charge of the Internet bureau under the State Council Information Office also showed little mercy:

Google has violated its written promise it made when entering the Chinese market by stopping filtering its searching service and blaming China in insinuation for alleged hacker attacks (…) This is totally wrong. We’re uncompromisingly opposed to the politicization of commercial issues, and express our discontent and indignation to Google for its unreasonable accusations and conducts.

But despite China’s desires, the issue was always going to be politicised. Google was forced to take a stand and, in so doing, dealt itself tough cards. Indeed, in this light China could certainly come out as the bad guy. As Foreign Policy’s Blake Hounshell clarifies, the results could include:

exposing the country’s claims of increased openness as hollow, scaring away potential investors, and taking away a valuable source of innovation and healthy competition.

What is also crucial is that, in terms of diplomatic relations, the timing of the saga was particularly tense. With US arms sales to Taiwan, a meeting between the Dalai Lama and Obama, and not to mention the US continually pressing China to revaluate the Renminbi, the Google-China fiasco has done nothing to heal the wounds between East and West.

Indeed, Google’s actions may well have provided fuel for a more aggressive US policy towards China. Google co-founder Sergey Brin certainly wasted no time in calling on the US to put more pressure on Beijing. He said,

Human rights issues deserve equal time to the trade issues that are high priority now … I hope this gets taken seriously.

Since services and information are our most successful exports, if regulations in China effectively prevent us from being competitive, then they are a trade barrier.

Plus, while the White House expressed disappointment that a deal was not reached between the two giants, it would have been foolish to have ever expected an agreement. Google had sealed its fate with its first announcement in January that it was going to stop censoring search results on google.cn: China was never going to back down.

In spite of this, Brin remains hopeful. He told the New York Times, “perhaps we can return to serving mainland China in the future.” And while Google told The Guardian it wants to continue R&D work in China, what happens next remains shrouded in confusion. Drummond told The Atlantic,

We don’t know what to expect. We have done what we have done. We are fully complying with Chinese law. We’re not operating our search engine within the Firewall any more.  We will continue to talk with them about how to operate our other services.

Whether this epic fiasco ends up damaging China more than Google remains to be seen. In the midst of the tense bickering, it can be hard to see what Google has concretely achieved, not least since China’s censorship shows no signs of easing. However, in taking positive lessons from the fiercer debates on free speech online, perhaps some of the political and diplomatic fallout can be eased.

Google and China: open letters and new debates

Photo Credit: Jin/Getty

The potentially final chapter in the Google-China saga may come this week, with the Internet giant close to following through with its threat of pulling out of China altogether. In mid-Janauary, Google announced it would stop censoring search results on google.cn, having being the victim of a sophisticated cyber attack originating in the PRC.

The events triggered an East-West discussion over Internet freedom, with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton quickly asserting its importance. Chinese mainstream media has, meanwhile, has been blazing a trail against what they see as an ‘information imperialist’ with intricate ties to the US government. Google was most recently asked not to ‘politcalize’ (?) the conflict, as a Xinhua commentary published on Sunday claimed:

It is unfair for Google to impose its own value and yardsticks on Internet regulation to China, which has its own time-honored tradition, culture and value.

This response has not been surprising: the issue of censorship is a non-negotiable for Beijing. But the saga has gone beyond reminding us of the policing of the Chinese Internet to truly illuminating how different it is from its Western counterpart: simply, Google’s moves could potentially push China closing to harbouring what we now know could be a sprawling Intranet.

This has had ramifications for Chinese web users, both apolitical and not. This weekend, an open-source letter was published by a group of activists demanding clarity over the speculation of the last two months. Rebecca MacKinnon translated,

if Google.cn were to no longer exist, or if China were to further block other Google services, has the Chinese government considered how their blocking of foreign websites and censorship of domestic websites violates Chinese citizens’ right to scientific, educational, environmental, clean energy and other information? How will this loss be lessened or compensated for?

As MacKinnon says, the Google-China incident has sparked some soul searching about the extent to which the Chinese government is causing China to be isolated from the rest of the world. A new debate on accountability stretching to both governments and Internet companies may also be a result of recent events.

Google’s potential departure also holds promise for China’s domestic Internet companies keen to capitalise on the situation. As TIME’s Bill Powell says,

Google’s stock price has declined from $595 to about $567, while Baidu, the leading search engine in China, has seen its stock price rise by 50%.

Michael Schuman, meanwhile, has been pondering over the connection, if there is one, between economic progress and human rights. Specifically, could “China’s stand on human rights…cause it to miss out on crucial opportunities necessary for its future growth”? He concludes,

the real test of China’s political and social policies will come as it attempts to shift from an economy that makes cheap stuff to one that innovates and invents advanced products and technologies. Only then will we find out if the government’s control of information and personal freedoms will hamper its efforts to catch up with the United States, Japan and South Korea. Perhaps then China will realize the importance of having Google in its economy rather than outside of it.

Schuman’s opinion is certainly on point as China nears towards a crucial crossroads in its own stage of development. With regards to its economic shift, as China’s middle class becomes wealthier and commands more purchasing power, the government will also need to readjust itself to accommodate this growing echelon of society.

Whether it does so, at least in part, by heeding to the demands of the authors of the aforementioned letter may well be too far off in the distance. While these tumultuous events have increased the volume in previously quiet discussions, we shouldn’t get too excited, not least if this recent Xinhua commentary is anything to go by:

Whether (Google) leaves or not, the Chinese government will keep its Internet regulation principles unchanged.

‘Just speculating’ (and other interesting reads)

http://www.zonaeuropa.com/20100118_1.htm

The above link will direct you to ESWN’s translation of prominent blogger Han Han’s speculation over the future of the Chinese Internet. Needless to say, it was deleted by blog hosting service Sina.com pretty quickly. And apparently, we have the following to look forward to:

2019:  It is the military parade on the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the nation.  On that day, the government announces that China will lock down its national borders and concentrate on strengthening itself so that all reactionary forces will tremble in fear.  On that day, China makes a statement to the rest of the world: “If you stop beating someone for 3 days, he/she may get on the roof and remove tiles.”  Many nations say that they don’t know how to translate this sentence.

2020: …

2020:  Earth is destroyed.  The descendants of the Mayans say that it is normal to see a margin of error of plus or minus ten years on such events.

Another link comes via Peter Beaumont of the Observer. Here he discusses the growing claim that there is even less freedom in China now than before 1989, and why China is terrified of escalating dissent. Fear? Harmony? Paranoia? Power-hungry?

Finally, if you haven’t quite filled your quota of the Google-China fiasco, read Rebecca MacKinnon’s commentary on the global Internet’s future and the need for accountability from both governments and online power holders.

China and Google: 16 hours later

I’m a little late to the game, but earlier today Google announced it was no longer willing to censor search results on google.cn,  threatening to eventually pull out of the PRC altogether. Google said this followed Chinese hackers attacking Gmail servers, with the intention of infiltrating accounts of human rights activists in the PRC.

Netizens and commentators typed on overdrive in response to the move. According to Rebecca MacKinnon, Google sent “a very public message – which people in China are hearing – that the Chinese government’s approach to Internet regulation is unacceptable and poisonous.”

Fears for the future of China’s cybersphere also rang around the FT. Internet commentator Xie Wen told the paper,

We are not allowed to play along with Web 2.0. Maybe the Chinese will become second-class citizens of the internet world. That is a real possibility. To put it more straightforward, some want to transform the internet into a national intranet.

Jeremy Goldkorn, founder of the long censored Danwei, wrote with pragmatism on The Guardian’s CiF pages:

China’s internet does not meet international standards. Without Google, there is no way to pretend that it does. (…) As someone who agreed with Google’s reasoning when it entered China, I also support this move. If it cannot operate here in accordance with its global standards, it should leave.

But cynicism was also in full swing. Evgeny Morozov wasn’t buying the argument that cyberattacks forced Google to rethink its China policy. He said,

Google was in need of some positive PR to correct its worsening image (especially in Europe, where concerns about privacy are mounting on a daily basis). Google.cn is the goat that would be sacrificed, for it will generate most positive headlines and may not result in devastating losses to Google’s business  (Google.cn holds roughly 30 percent of the Chinese market).

One positive outcome, for rival search engine Baidu at least, is that its shares have soared by 16.6% in the past few hours. Sina has followed suit with a 4.9% rise, whilst Google dropped by just over 2%.

As Charles Arthur, technology editor of The Guardian, claims, it would be nice to believe today’s events will put an end to China’s sophisticated censorship. But, as both he and Gady Epstein have reminded us, let’s not be naive: 2009 saw an unprecedented building up of the Great Firewall, and Google’s admittedly daring move isn’t going to chisel away at these bricks.

Web 2.0. has provided the privileged and passionate few who make up China’s online dissidents and activists with the chance to create a semblance of civil society. Yet, while the expansion of the online public sphere, with the help of proxies and VPNs, may continue, the democratic reform it seeks to achieve is still too far off in the distance to be visible.