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January 17, 2010

Google squirts water-pistol at China’s Great Firewall amidst hypocrisy

With the infiltration of Google customers’ email accounts, allegedly from the Chinese authorities in search of information on human rights activists, Google said it would pull out of China. But doesn’t Google employ the same data mining surveillance services itself?

David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer, announced on its official blog last week, there is to be “a new approach to China”, which means, we want out. What the ultimate outcome of this furore will be is not yet clear, but according to sources China is said to have persuaded Google to stay on and announced that: “Beijing is trying to persuade Google to stay and give up plans to pull out its Chinese version from the country.”

On the same blog, Google said: “Like many other well-known organizations, we face cyber attacks of varying degrees on a regular basis. In mid-December, we detected a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google.” Therefore, we quit? That simple? Not quite.

China’s foreign ministry said last Thursday that: “China welcomed international internet companies to conduct business within the country according to the law”. Well, that’s all well and good if the Chinese authorities are protecting users from viewing porn and overt sedition but the assumption of the foreign Press has been that the hacker attacks were orchestrated by the Chinese government to carry out investigations against human rights activists.

That sort of practice is, of course, unacceptable to us in the West, but doesn’t it smack of hypocrisy? There’s something awkwardly deceiving about Google’s moral stance on China when its corporate motto “do no evil”, an anachronism now but perhaps a catchy shibboleth in its time, is an almost obscene declaration of double standards while it retains data mining to service ad revenues, coupled with surveillance, digital profiling and personal intrusion.

Getting ever more involved, the issue has now become politicised, with the US government saying it will lodge a formal complaint with Chinese officials to express its concern about cyber attacks on Google’s Gmail service in China after Google announced it will no longer censor its content.

In the spirit of appeasement, China Internet Network Information Center, another official agency, said on Saturday that the number of internet users had reached 384 million by the end of 2009, a 28% jump in one year. In January last year, China also issued 3G licenses to major telecom operators, resulting in a massive hike in internet users. Now, around 8% of all internet access in China is through mobile phones, and growing exponentially.

Google is also apparently in trouble for copyright theft of Chinese writers without obtaining permission. Add to this the valid criticism by censors for allowing its site to be used for the distribution of pornography: Google should know better than to let that type of content through in China.

According to Techcrunch last week, “Google has had more success in China than a lot of other big Valley names, but [it] isn’t and will likely never be the market leader…Valley elites erupted into applause on Twitter and blogs saying Google was showing more backbone than the US government and was a model of integrity for the world.” Moral integrity and Google? A non-sequitur if there ever was one, surely?

But perhaps there are other factors at play: Google was not making a lot of money in China and played second fiddle to Baidu; and it was never going to make any substantially increase in its market share. Maybe economics was at the forefront of its decision, as last year China accounted for just under 1-2% of Google’s US$21.8 billion revenue.

This is not just a Google issue though: all foreign media companies have found it very difficult to penetrate the Chinese internet market; they make only modest returns. What the backlash may be within the country and without is yet to be revealed, but media censorship is deeply unpopular, even with the Chinese people themselves, and some have suggested  that if Google goes ahead and pulls google.cn, the Chinese may yet stage protests against the government, citing Google as the catalyst.

One statement I read that came out of Google’s statement of intent was from Warren Cowan, CEO at Greenlight, a UK-based search engine marketing agency, who told TechNewsWorld: “China doesn’t need Google as much as Google needs China . China’s got the sophistication, the strength and the will to do whatever it wants.” Not so, methinks, or China would not have held out the olive branch this weekend; the “need” is perhaps better described as mutual.

But surely there must first be some resolution between Google and the Chinese authorities, as blocking access to sites such as Blogger, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and millions of other “undesirable” websites, is excessive use of their censorship “laws”. It was perhaps the hacking attack on Gmail that was the last straw.

The Chinese are still very sensitive about images of Tiananmen Square, the footage of Chinese police beating up Tibetan monks and the social unrest in Qinghai. It was these scenes that prompted the shutdown of foreign social-networking sites. Also, the scare of the footage on Twitter about the Iranian election protests saw them further retreat into their protective shells.

All this, together with the political overtures of President Barack Obama’s sharp slap on the wrist in his thinly-veiled criticism of Chinese internet censorship during his recent visit, and that the US is to receive the Dalai Lama and to sell arms to Taiwan, doesn’t exactly aid Google’s cause.

Of course, there is also the argument that whether or not Google leaves China, the Chinese have become adept at circumventing these Orwellian blocks to foreign websites with the installation of “virtual private network” software.

But let’s look at some social and economic perceptions of the international press: it has recently taken up the mantle of China’s economic ascendancy on the world stage and of its future dominance. But there are negatives in this narrative. First, intransigence was China’s hallmark during the recent climate change talks in Copenhagen which turned to condemnation; and there has been an international outcry about the jailing of a human-rights activist and the execution of a mentally disturbed British drug-smuggler.

China’s strongest asset, its booming economy, has also been damned by many a reliable source, with one describing it as “Dubai times 1,000, or worse”. According to the Economist, “China’s smooth ascent is exploding because its economic miracle has proved partly illusory. In fact, China’s government may be right to see the economic gloom as in part wishful thinking from outsiders repelled by its repressive political system… China is no Goldilocks economy. Bank lending is growing too fast, which may be fine if it is flowing into useful investments, but not if it is fuelling asset prices. The risk of bubbles and excess capacity will grow unless policy is tightened soon.”

Analyses have drawn a mixed crowd: there are those that think Google is morally right to withdraw from repression; others view it as financial suicide; others still see China’s ascendancy on the world stage as an entity it simply must engage with at whatever cost.

But let’s look at a few excerpts of Will Hutton’s “China, the West and the Credit Crunch”, regarding this new utopia: His lecture reversed some common expectations that the 21st century belongs to China and asserted that its extraordinary growth has been taken out of context. He contends that China’s growth offers no new paradigm for development, and its success is based solely on high savings and low-tech manufacture, having come about as a consequence of its One Child Policy, which effected a phenomenally high savings rate of around 40% as means to ensure old age financial support.

The other point to mention here is Chinese businesses mask pervasive state control. According to Mr Hutton: “Of the 1,105 enterprises floated on the stock exchange, 81% are actually state controlled; of the 6,000 restructured state-owned enterprises, the members of communist party committees have become non-executive directors in 70%.” These figures go a long way to explain Google’s and other multinationals’ treatment by the state.

And talking of economic growth and what the board of google.cn might have realised is, as Mr Hutton states: “…economic growth requires an educated and productive workforce, discerning consumers, property rights and the capacity to innovate. A telling statistic is that China currently accounts for only 0.1% of international patents.”

To conclude, this appears to be a Mexican standoff, with reports that Google’s China operations may be “officially terminated” in February, leading the Chinese government to block the company’s main site, according to Credit Suisse Group. But their decision to withdraw should rather be a precursor in raising a meaningful dialogue with the Chinese authorities. If not, who else is to contribute in becoming a “key enabler of a better-informed world” in China?

The West has a lot to learn from the Chinese and vice-versa, but it will not be an easy task while the Right continue to hold political and economic sway in the country. Although Google will hold more talks with Chinese authorities “in the coming days”, it would also do well to remember its own fuzzy logic: don’t be evil; in other words, be up-front about what personal data you collect. People in glass houses, and all that…

If it does eventually go sour, the biggest losers in this fiasco will be Google and China; both would lose face if the withdrawal proves to be true, with China deprived of Google’s innovation, international visibility and respect and Google’s visible global hand will be impaired.

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John Sylvester is the media director of V9 Design & Build (http://www.v9designbuild.com) and an expert in search engine optimization and web marketing strategies.

10 Responses to “Google squirts water-pistol at China’s Great Firewall amidst hypocrisy

    avatar Alexis Kauffmann says:

    QUOTE: “Google was not making a lot of money in China and played second fiddle to Baidu; and it was never going to make any substantially increase in its market share.”

    It seems the author has a problem with facts. Just check the following article, available at http://gs.statcounter.com/press/google-gained-market-share-in-china-in-last-six-months:

    “Google has made impressive gains in China since July last when it was at 30% compared to Baidu’s 68%,” commented Aodhan Cullen, CEO, StatCounter. “Our analysis suggests that given Google’s recent strong performance, market share is certainly not the reason behind its threat to leave China at this time.”

    avatar John Sylvester says:

    It all depends on your sources. The US/UK broadsheets were quoting the above; your source points at something far more positive while http://www.searchenginejournal.com/google-losing-market-share-in-china/3816/: The China Internet Marketing Network Information Center (CNNIC) puts Google’s overall loss at 8%, ending at 25.3% while Baidu’s market share increases to 62.1%. Even more reason to negotiate a settlement then.

    Dear Sir, when you write that Google’s motto is an “almost obscene declaration of double standards”, you are morally equating Google’s behavior with China’s. They are not comparable. Google’s computers analyze the keywords in your email and search queries for targeted advertising. Google claims no human ever reads your email or watches you search.

    On the other hand, China is accused of attempting to hack into activists’ email accounts so agents could read their email, presumably so the democracy movement could be subverted and its leaders arrested.

    Do you think these two behaviors can be equated?

    You make plenty of good points in this article otherwise, but it’s hard to take you seriously when you don’t acknowledge the difference between Google Adwords and the Chinese police state.

    avatar Nostradoofus says:

    Hyperventilation reduces credibility. You might persuade more by saying less — by merely observing the inherent conflict of interest at Google.

    GOOG makes money by data mining, but builds brand by appearing not to invade privacy. Even if they don’t spy now, we rely upon their self-restraint, which could be breached at any moment.

    That’s a powder keg, bound to explode someday, regardless of whether they are actively invading privacy now.

    avatar John says:

    “its corporate motto “do no evil” … is an almost obscene declaration of double standards while it retains data mining to service ad revenues, coupled with surveillance, digital profiling and personal intrusion.”

    It’s rare when a single quote can clearly show the idiocy of its author, but Sylvester pulled it off.

    avatar John Sylvester says:

    You have a good point, Mr Davis. It was the assumption by the press, led by the nose by Google, that it was the Chinese authorities that hacked their services.

    I have suspected all along (note the headline) that this story is not all it appears on the surface.

    Google now says it is investigating whether Chinese employees helped in the cyber-attack last month. Their share price has also risen.

    So, are we now to assume that the Chinese government were not the guilty party in the attack? Whether they are or not, this all seems to me to be more of a PR game than actual victimisation. My guess is that it will all die down over the next month.

    By the way, even with a wee dram, my hyperventilation remains robustly verbose.

    A Dear John response from The Guardian – http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/mar/26/seth-finkelstein-google-advertising

    Quotes from the piece:
    “…with the economic pressures of a deep recession or a government interest in data-mining for security purposes, are fraught with the potential for evil.”

    “Tim Berners-Lee has summed up the threat as: ‘To allow someone to snoop on your internet traffic is to allow them to put a television camera in your room, except it will tell them a whole lot more about you than the tele­vision camera.'”

    avatar Matt says:

    Very poor article. Long and flawed in so many places I lost count. How you can you compare Googles data collection to the actions Chinese government?? You have very strange opinions Mr Sylvester.

    Google has lost a little face by being hacked, providing they’re not invincible, but gained so much more by it’s decision to (probably) exit China. I 100% respect them for this decision.

    Whatever the stats, they didn’t have a massive search market share in China, were restricted in what results they could show, had to deal with one of the worst governments on the planet and with the hack attempt it’s no wonder they are (probably) going to leave. It was a good reason to pack up and go.

    I think it’s shown the world how China plays ball and hopefully others will follow suit by shunning them until they begin to change for the better.

    Dear Matt,

    You may well of course consider my thoughts poorly delivered; I wouldn’t disabuse you of that criticism. It was long-winded in that I was arguing with myself over the merits of Google’s apparent decision to withdrawn its Chinese operations and the American perspective that China has been said to overtake the US economically in the next decade or so.

    I don’t agree with that premise and went some way to include information that supports it. I also don’t agree with many American commentators that this may happen, for the reasons set out. The “facts” in this piece were mostly drawn from broadsheet sources in the UK, plus Mr Hutton’s, so maybe you should take issue with them also.

    According to a recent piece in the Guardian newspaper, Google went into China blinkered with “a recipe blending three parts greed with one part naivety, and opined: “What was less forgivable about the West’s approach was the implicit naivety. It was a product of wishful thinking brought about by market triumphalism, the belief that, in the end, it is impossible to have a capitalist economy without also having liberal political institutions.”

    And I do not morally compare “Google’s data collection to the actions Chinese government” as such. If, as where I live, there is massive government corruption, is it not “hypocritical” to attack these actions if I am stealing petty cash from my company?

    The argument is not of weight but of double standards, which I stick to.

    Addendum to my last post:

    According to npr.org” “A state-run newspaper labeled the appeal from Washington as ‘information imperialism’, and Ma insisted that China had ‘the most active development of the Internet’ of any country.”

    And the Guardian (see http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/jan/24/china-us-iran-online-warfare): “An editorial in the People’s Daily accused the US of launching a ‘hacker brigade’ and said it had used social media such as Twitter to spread rumours and create trouble.

    “Behind what America calls free speech is naked political scheming. How did the unrest after the Iranian election come about?” said the editorial, signed by Wang Xiaoyang. “It was because online warfare launched by America, via YouTube video and Twitter microblogging, spread rumours, created splits, stirred up and sowed discord between the followers of conservative reformist factions.”

    “Washington said at the time of the unrest that it had asked Twitter, which was embraced by Iranian anti-government protesters, to remain open. Several social media sites, including YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, have been blocked in China in the last year.

    “The editorial asked rhetorically whether obscenity or activities promoting terrorism would be allowed on the net in the US. ‘We’re afraid that in the eyes of American politicians, only information controlled by America is free information, only news acknowledged by America is free news, only speech approved by America is free speech, and only information flow that suits American interests is free information flow,’ it added.”

    Is this article, then, such nonsense, I ask rhetorically?

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