Thursday, 4 February 2010

Google vs Beijing

Google hit the headlines recently, publicly threatening to pull out of China after its Gmail servers were hacked. There's a lot more to this story than meets the eye, though; and we look at some of the motivations behind Google's threats, as well as explaining how this story affects you as an Internet user.

Listen to the podcast here:

MP3 File

The Story

On 12th January this year, Google announced publicly that it was "reviewing its business operations in China". The Google announcement was a weird mishmash of stuff about Google's stance on Chinese government censorship, seemingly triggered by Google being hacked. Google's statement was along the lines of, "Hackers tried to break into accounts of Chinese dissidents; therefore we're going to stop censoring our search results, even if that means pulling out of China altogether". Obviously, this makes no sense at all.

The implicit assumption, although Google is too diplomatic to say so, is that it was the Chinese government or its proxies was responsible for the hacking. In this case, Google's stance does make some sense even though the issues of security and censorship are unrelated.

The Chinese government has vehemently denied any involvement in the hacking. Indeed, some security experts have questioned the evidence of Beijing's involvement.

The hack was facilitated by a flaw in Internet Explorer. Microsoft eventually released a patch for the bug but not before several governments urged their citizens to switch browsers.

Google announced that it "will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all".

Additionally, Google has suspended the Chinese launch of two Android phones.

The Response

Hillary Clinton got on her soap box and made a strong-sounding but clueless speech on the topic. Obama, too, couldn't resist sticking his oar in. Beijing told the US to stick to the facts and mind its own business.

Google's stance has been widely supported but some of that support could be purely because of anti-China sentiment:

  • "Google living up to its 'Do no evil' mantra"
  • "Big U.S. company taking a stand against evil China"
  • "How dare the Chinese government try to attack dissidents?" (but it's OK for Western governments to do the same when, say, tracking terrorism?)

Our Response


This incident is a timely reminder that the Rudd government plans to impose mandatory Internet censorship, similar to that in China, on Australians. Hilary Clinton has been audibly quiet in expressing concerns about the Australian government's censorship plans.

Cloud Computing

In many respects using cloud computing is like out-sourcing. When using a cloud computing service you are out-sourcing responsibility for privacy and security to a third-party. This incident reminds us that even Google isn't immune to security and privacy breaches.

Google's Motive

What if we turned our sceptical eye to this, and asked whether Google might have some other reason for taking the stance they have - for example:

  • It takes the heat off the fact that Gmail was hacked! (Ref: Google Is Worried About Privacy, Not Politics, in China Dispute)
  • Google is way behind Baidu in China (30% vs. 60% market-share), so maybe it wanted to get out anyway, but without admitting defeat.
  • It earns Google brownie points elsewhere abroad - e.g. in the EU, where it's had run-ins with the French
  • It earns Google brownie points at home (USA) (Ref: Google's Clever Branding Move)
  • It provides a (false) pretext for lifting censorship of which could steal marketshare from Baidu


Watch this space: Google and Beijing are playing a game of brinksmanship. Only time will tell who will brink first. Stay tuned to the Focal Point podcast and we'll revisit this topic once the matter is resolved.

Reference material

CNN's Buzz Out Loud podcast has an excellent discussion on this topic, soon after the news broke.


Chris said...

The Washington Post reports that Google is enlisting the help of the National Security Agency to analyze the recent cyber-attacks, and better defend Google against future attacks.

ChrisP said...

DarkReading reports that security researchers claim to be close to identifying the authors of the malware used in the cyber-attackes against Google and other organisations. They say they have no direct evidence implicating the Chinese government.

Chris Pudney said...

Business Week reports that two groups linked to Google have asked the US Trade Representative to consider the merits of taking China's Internet censorship to the World Trade Organization as an unfair trade barrier.

Chris Pudney said...

The Google vs. Beijing face-off appears to be entering the end-game phase. Associated Press reports that the Chinese Minister of Industry and Information Technology has insisted that Google must obey Chinese law or "pay the consequences". Meanwhile, the Financial Times reports that Google has drafted detailed plans for the closure of

ChrisP said...

The BBC reports that China's government-controlled Xinhua news agency has denounced Google for providing US intelligence agencies with records of its search engine results, and for trying to impose American values on Chinese society. Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that Google has closed its search-engine and is directing visitors to its uncensored Hong Kong search-engine Whether the Chinese government blocks access to remains to be seen. Google has set-up a dashboard that provides information on the status of its services in mainland China.