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:
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.