What is Google now doing in China?

My following article appears today on ABC Unleashed/The Drum:

Google has threatened to withdraw entirely from China in protest at the authoritarian regime’s oppressive online censorship and continuing attempts by Chinese hackers to gain sensitive information of local human rights workers.

Perhaps most significantly, Google’s Chinse search engine, Google.cn, now allows once banned material to be displayed, such as images of the brutal crackdown in Tiananmen Square. A few people even placed flowers outside the company’s offices in Beijing as a sign of respect and perhaps admiration for the company’s position.

It is a highly unusual move by a multinational with roughly 30 percent market share in an internet market of over 350 million people, the largest in the world. Furthermore, it recognises the increasing pressure placed on the company by Communist officials, including the banning of YouTube, attempts to illegally gain corporate information and persistent efforts by hackers to discover the private details of dissenters on Gmail.

Rebecca MacKinnon, a fellow at the Open Space Institute and an expert on the Chinese Internet, told the New York Times that, “Unless they turn themselves into a Chinese company, Google could not win. The company has clearly put its foot down and said enough is enough.”

A Google spokesman wrote in a blog posting on 12 January:

“These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered – combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web – have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.”

News reports indicate that the Obama administration has been in negotiations with Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Cisco, companies with a long history of assisting Beijing in its censorship program, to implement a far-reaching initiative to help citizens in repressive regimes access banned online information. China is only the worst culprit of this growing trend; Iran is not far behind, especially since last year’s disputed election.

Despite Google’s seemingly brave move, already praised by human rights groups around the world, questions remain whether other large web firms will join them. It should be remembered that the country’s largest search engines, such as Baidu, are Chinese-owned and remain close to the regime. They are unlikely to follow Google’s lead.

The last months have seen cyber wars within China and from the outside heat up considerably. Chinese netizens have pledged to help their Iranian colleagues while government-backed activists from Iran moved to disable Chinese websites.

Chinese writer and blogger Alice Xin Liu argued earlier this month that the banning of increasing numbers of websites by paranoid authorities was both impossible to predict and avoid. She shared the news that officials are threatening to release a “white-list” of approved websites, with foreign websites forced to register before they launched or allowed to continue online.

Although some technology writers are cynical over Google’s latest stance (“More about business than thwarting evil”, says one), the company’s relationship with the Communist regime has never been especially close. It was slammed internationally for agreeing to censorship its search engine in the first place. Google’s global standing plummeted since 2006: “On a business level, that decision to censor…was a net negative,” co-founder Sergey Brin told the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2007.

When I visited China in 2007 during research for my book, The Blogging Revolution, I found widespread mistrust of the company. Although Gmail was regarded as far safer option than Hotmail or Yahoo!, the search engine was regarded as a pale imitation of Chinese equivalents.

The Great Firewall (GFW) is an ingenious system that doesn’t actually block all banned content. Instead, explains leading internet censorship expert Nart Villeneuve, “the GFW doesn’t have to be 100% technically effective, it just has to serve as a reminder to those in China about what content is acceptable and that which should be avoided. The objective is to influence behaviour toward self-censorship, so that most will not actively seek out banned information or the means to bypass controls and access it.”

My own research in China found a remarkable amount of material still existed that could be deemed controversial. Sexual content, political writings and corruption discussions remained available. The last decade has seen an explosion of once-forbidden issues now analysed, challenged and framed in the Chinese blogosphere. Crusading journalism is still possible in today’s China. This is not to deny the pervasive censorship regime but to highlight a more nuanced view of Beijing’s attitude towards its citizens.

The wider context for this story is the economic rise of China; the elephant in the room between Washington and Beijing. America fears a business and political rival and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanded this week that China explains its ongoing cyber-attacks against Google and other firms. It was yet another warning from the super-power to the competitor snapping at its heels.

Veteran China watcher James Fallows argues that the significance of Google’s decision is the challenge to China’s “Bush-Cheney era”. China “is on a path at the moment that courts resistance around the world” but is not a threat to American hegemony.

The real agenda behind Google’s decision may never be known but it is unlikely to change in the short-term the Communist Party’s stranglehold on information. If the move forces Western companies to more closely examine their motives and practices in the dictatorship and the collusion that inevitably comes with this process, Google will have recovered a modicum of respect.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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