Google and China have never really been the best of friends, and now finally it’s all over. Following security breaches of Google servers by hackers thought to originate from China, last week Google announced that it would be removing censorship from all of its Chinese services. Although the future is still uncertain, it’s extremely likely that we’ll see the end of Google.cn and the company effectively exiled from the country. As is usual, Google claims the moral high ground and reinforces its “don’t be evil” attitude, but other evidence suggests that Google may have another hidden agenda.
In mid-December, attackers were able to gain access to two Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists by using a previously undocumented flaw with Internet Explorer. Actual correspondence was not obtained, but the hackers were still able to get information on basic account details, including the subject lines of emails. Dmitri Alperovitch from computer security firm McAfee claimed that this was the most sophisticated hacking attack on a commercial company that has ever been seen. The corporate servers of Adobe and at least 33 other companies were also targeted in the ‘highly coordinated’ attack, which Google says originated from China. The level of sophistication entailed leads many to suggest that the hackers were agents of, if not directly employed by, the Chinese government.
Google’s local presence in China began in 2006 when the company launched Google.cn, which is to China what Google.co.uk is for us. Although the company was obviously very positive to be doing business in the country, the move attracted massive criticism after it was revealed that search results were being actively censored according to rules from the Chinese government. This included websites critical of the Communist regime and news and images from particular events, most famously the Tiananmen Square protests. At the time co-founder Sergey Brin still tried to emphasise that they were doing the right thing. Part of the agreement was that Google could tell users that their searches were being filtered and by doing so, Brin claimed, it would let Chinese citizens know that their government was trying to hide information.
Things continued in this way until 2009 when the Chinese authorities began to tighten their grip on internet access in the country. Along with the demand for all home PCs to run ‘Green Dam’, government censorship software masquerading as a parental control filter, the China Illegal Information Reporting Centre demanded that Google block several overseas websites of which many were sexual in nature. Then, in December, hackers infiltrated Google and tried to gain access to the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.
Following the incident, and in conjunction with what they call ‘attempts over the past year to further limit free speech,’ on 12th January Google signalled the end to its censorship in China, even if it meant ‘having to shut down Google.cn’ and their Chinese offices. This does however seem a little suspicious, especially considering that some top security analysts have called the attack ‘routine’ despite its level of sophistication. Mikko Hypponen of security firm F-Secure said, ‘this wasn’t in my opinion ground-breaking as an attack. We see this fairly regularly.’ Given also that Google has so far made no claim to be ending its compliance with US laws which limit freedom of speech, such as those which made it remove sites critical of scientology in 2002, it’s easy to wonder if censorship really is the only item pushing Google’s agenda. After all, if such attacks are indeed ‘routine,’ then why has this particular incident made the company do such an abrupt U-turn on its censorship policy?
Clearly, a company as big as Google does not act on impulse when pulling out of a market as large and with as much potential as China. The evidence may suggest that at least part of the reason for Google’s actions is self-interested or economic. Google.cn is very much an underdog in China to Baidu.com, the government controlled search engine that is currently China’s number one visited website (which interestingly enough Google used to own a share in prior to setting up their own service). According to Alexa, while Baidu sits in the top spot Google ranks a paltry third, for once failing to dominate the search market. Given this relatively poor performance for the search engine giant it wouldn’t be surprising if quitting China has been on the cards for quite a while. Google does stand to lose $600 million annually from the move, but that is a tiny sum compared to their global revenue of $22 billion.
What’s more likely is that Google have decided their “don’t be evil” image is worth more than the money they stand to lose. Indeed, although their stock price took a tumble after the announcement just days later it was back to its original position as if nothing had happened. In 2006 many called for a boycott on the search engine and said that the company had betrayed its ideals. Google will be hoping that this move will restore its position in the public eye as a ‘nice’ company and win it some favourable publicity which will have much more financial benefit in the West. This move also puts pressure on rivals Microsoft and Yahoo who continue to operate under censorship and have much more to lose from quitting the Chinese market altogether.
Although Google’s decision does send a strong message about censorship and freedom of speech, it cannot be denied that Google has a lot to gain personally from it. Taken at face value, this decision certainly will cost Google money up front. But in the long term their reputation of being a ‘nice’ and ‘good’ company may serve them better and help them to succeed in the markets they currently do not dominate, such as their ever-growing Android phone business, whose China launch has recently been delayed by Google.