Google's China Affair
I was going to write an article a few weeks ago regarding the recent wrangling between Google and China, but as I was about to submit my article to the newspaper, new information came to light. Now, I am writing the article again and as we sit buried under almost two feet of snow in Washington DC, a hearing in the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs regarding the recent China incident with a lofty title of "The Google Predicament: Transforming U.S. Cyberspace Policy to Advance Democracy, Security, and Trade" has been postponed until further notice. For those that have not been following this matter, I should probably backtrack a bit and give you some background information.
Google has been operating in China in some capacity with a Chinese version of its search engine since 2000. However, in 2006 Google fully entered the Chinese market by launching a Google.cn version of its search engine that filtered politically sensitive results, as well as other "unsavory" material. Over the next few years, Google was criticized for not abiding by their own mantra of "don't be evil" by censoring search results in China. Google responded that they felt their presence in China, albeit in a censored form was still better for the Chinese people than no presence at all. During this time, Google's technological feathers were ruffled a number of times. For example, China blocked access to YouTube and Google News during the riots in Tibet. All of these events finally culminated in the now famous blog post by David Drummond, the Chief Counsel of Google. He announced that Google will no longer censor search results due to a recent attack on its servers in the country during which Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists were targeted.
It seems like this announcement was going to be a run-of-the mill technology notice in the ongoing Google-China censorship debate. However, since Mr. Drummond also said that Google might consider pulling out of China altogether, the issue was much bigger. China responded swiftly with a statement proclaiming that if Google or any company wishes to operate in China, they need to abide by Chinese laws. Suddenly, this became more than a dispute between Google and China, but a trans-national debate over internet freedom. One of the first politicians to publicly comment on this issue was Illinois Senator Dick Durbin who invited U.S. companies to congressional hearings regarding their business practices in China, placing special focus on commending Google for taking a stand against Chinese censorship. Additionally, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a speech at the Newseum here in Washington DC regarding Internet Censorship. The speech was quite lengthy, but what I found especially bold was her desire to fund tools that would help people who live in countries where the Internet is censored to go around that censorship. Shortly thereafter, Google approached the National Security Agency (NSA) to help it investigate how the hacking took place and to ensure that it does not occur again.
Initially, I was pretty excited about the news that Google was finally threading on the "just" path of promoting freedom and democracy around the world even at the expense of its own profits. However, after some deliberation and research, I started wondering whether Google was really a "don't be evil" company and whether their motives were really goodwill, and not something else. For starters, for all the talk of pulling out of China, Google's CEO, Eric Schmidt, recently said that Google is committed to stay in China and while they are in talks with the Chinese Government, they have no desire in leaving. I don't think that any talks with the Chinese government will result in anything short of the status quo, but time will tell. Additionally, it is a known fact that Google is not the number one player in China and that the title belongs to the homegrown Search Engine, Baidu, which has over two-thirds of the market share in search. Additionally, Google is actively trying to work with United States Federal, State, and Municipal governments to integrate their communication and search with Google technology. It would seem that Google would like to be on the government's good side and would thus need to be tough on security and thus work with the NSA. For example, Los Angeles is utilizing Gmail for all of its city workers, and Arizona will follow suit.
Although the NSA is an important government agency that has a mandate to protect us, I am a bit uneasy about the Google-NSA partnership. The NSA was involved in a recent warrantless wiretapping controversy, and the Google-NSA partnership was not officially announced, nor were records detailing its specifics made available. Even though, unlike the Department of Homeland Security, the NSA does not have the power to investigate domestic criminal acts, it can still pose some privacy risk to acts involving foreign actors. The Internet has a very International dimension, and thus many privacy experts and organizations are uneasy. One such uneasy organization is the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a Washington-based policy research center, which recently filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking records regarding the agreement between Google and the NSA.
Compounded to the NSA concerns and the lingering thoughts that there are financial reasons behind the Google protest, there are some recent events that involved Google that added to possibilities of other ulterior motives. As I have written in the previous article, I felt that the Google Phone was not really about a phone, but more about a new way to deliver search technology, and a proprietary phone was a way for Google to do that. However, since its release, the Google Nexus has not been very popular and has been criticized. Additionally, Google was never known to be one to advertise itself on Television, due to the fact that its brand image was already elevated However, during the recent Super Bowl, they placed an ad touting their service. These two events made me wonder whether Google is trying to do damage control for itself, and if so, whether the China incident is just another manifestation of that.
Ultimately, this is an on-going issue and nobody is certain what will come from all of this. However, one thing is likely; both Google and China will continue to be important world players in the increasingly interconnected internet global village.