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Google’s Threats to Leave China Renew Censorship Concerns

January 13, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Internet giant Google said Wednesday that censorship efforts contributed to the company's threat to pull its business out of China. Jeffrey Brown talks to journalists for more.
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JEFFREY BROWN: It was an unusual sight in Beijing this morning, as a small group of people created a makeshift memorial outside Google’s offices, responding to news that the Internet giant might pull out of China. The move came in response to attacks on its Web site, including breaches of e-mail accounts belonging to human rights activists.

There was praise for Google’s move…

MAN: They are letting us know the truth.

JEFFREY BROWN: … and worries about the impact.

WOMAN: I feel it is a pity, even though it doesn’t affect all of my life, but it is a real hassle if we don’t have Google.

JEFFREY BROWN: The world’s leading search company announced yesterday it had discovered what it called a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on it and perhaps 34 other companies, adding that the attacks clearly came from within China.

As a result, chief legal officer David Drummond wrote: “We are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn. 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. This may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.”

Google launched its Google.cn site in China in 2006, agreeing to abide by government strictures that filter out searches for certain banned topics, such as Taiwan, Tibet, or the Tiananmen Square massacre, a stance that had brought criticism from human rights groups.

In 2008, Margaret Warner asked the then-head of Google’s China operation about its willingness to agree to government filtering of information.

KAI-FU LEE, Former President, Google China: Some people ask us, why do we choose to filter? But, really, that’s not the question. We didn’t have a choice of filter or not filter. Our choices are, A, we filter, comply by the law, and have a legal presence in China, or, B, we don’t enter China. And we feel that we chose A because we felt to engage and to offer as much information as we could was the right decision.

JEFFREY BROWN: Google’s turnaround ups the corporate stakes in the world’s most populace country, and also raises tensions between China and the United States.

Secretary of State Clinton issued a statement, saying: “We look to the Chinese government for an explanation. The ability to operate with confidence in cyberspace is critical in a modern society and economy.”

For its part, Chinese authorities were reported to be — quote — “seeking more information on Google’s statement.”

And while a few Chinese citizens had learned of the fight with Google, most knew little or nothing of the news, which was itself heavily censored.

And for more on the Google move, we turn to Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at the University of California, Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. He is also founder and editor in chief of China Digital Times, a bilingual China news Web site. And Andrew Lih is director of new media at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism.

Andrew Lih, how big a deal is this, and why?

ANDREW LIH: It’s a pretty big deal.

I think when people saw the post went up on a corporate blog directly challenging the PRC’s policies, that was a huge event in the Chinese cyberspace and also in corporate relations over the Pacific. So, it’s a real interesting set of developments, because Google, for a while, has been trying to find its feet in China.

And this, to many people, was the last straw in terms of trying to figure out where exactly they stood with the Chinese government.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Xiao Qiang, fill in some of the pictures for us. What were these attacks? What do we know about these cyber-attacks? Who were they aimed at? And — and is it clear yet whether it in fact came from the Chinese government?

XIAO QIANG, director, China Internet Project, University of California at Berkeley: Well, the Chinese government agents have been using a cyber-hacking method to both the inside of China and to the targets outside of China is well-known and a researched fact since year of 2002.

The Google’s Gmail experience is just the latest example. What’s significant is, a company like Google made this public. I understand — that is, an Internet company who operates entirely based on the trust of the clients, or users, the service like Gmail, cannot afford to lose their confidence from their clients that Google has the capability to protect their privacy.

So, this attack is serious. And, of course, like Andrew said, this is only the last straw that Google is experiencing in China operated in a censored, highly censored environment.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Andrew Lih, of course, the received wisdom has been that companies — that these companies cannot afford not to be in China, and, therefore, they acquiesce. We saw that in Margaret Warner’s interview from a couple of years ago.

So, does this look like the beginning of some kind of major turnaround in that attitude?

ANDREW LIH: Well, I think it shows that companies are only willing to stay around for so long, or at least Google is leading the way now, in terms of having the deck stacked against them.

When I was living in Beijing just last year, I was at a talk with the American Chamber of Commerce. And any company that does business in China knows that there are lots of obstacles. Some are natural. Some are very artificial, imposed by the government.

So, I asked the question to a roomful of business leaders, if the deck is it stacked against you, does it make sense to even play the game? And we have seen from Google they have some internal types of challenges. The charismatic leader of the — their China operations, Lee Kai-Fu, is no longer with them. He went off to start another venture.

But, within China, they have also had some challenges. They have had the scrutiny of the authorities and of media organizations, like the central television station, where they did a report saying that Google has lewd content on their Web site, even though other search engines in China have the same type of content.

So, Google has probably felt they weren’t treated fairly for a long time in China. And this was pretty much the last straw, that Google’s was willing to play by the rules that were out there in China, but, suddenly, in this case of possible corporate espionage inside their offices in China, this was a pretty alarming thing for Google to discover.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, Xiao Qiang, Google in the United States and worldwide is the world leader. But, in China, it is not the leader in search, right? There is the Chinese company…

XIAO QIANG: No.

JEFFREY BROWN: Number third — number three.

So, what does that mean in terms of leverage that the Chinese government perhaps has against Google? Might they just be prepared to say, you don’t like it, go away.

XIAO QIANG: Well, this — we really should put this context of the Google event in a larger context, which is, it’s not Google vs. China. It’s more Internet vs. the authoritarian regime, the Chinese authoritarian regime, because, fundamentally, the Internet is an enabler.

It’s empowering people the capacity to organize information, to effectively use information, and also to work together, collaboration, and even mobilize collective actions.

From those point of view, Google’s services and products are just, for those leading services, empowering people to do so. And the Chinese government fundamentally cannot live in peace with such empowering factor of technology. Therefore, they cannot live in peace with Google, period.

So, when the Internet is getting larger and larger in China, the Internet users are more and more politically active, and the political speeches have become more and more proactive, then the government has to intensify its censorship measure higher and higher degree, and then to the point that the company like a Google cannot take it any more. So, this is fundamentally an issue of China’s government vs. Internet.

Whether Google is there or not, the story will continue.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Andrew Lih, that suggests other companies are going to have to make similar decisions.

And, in fact, there were a number of other companies, American companies — American-based companies, that were also attacked. And, of course, it also suggests that these tensions that I referred to in the setup between the governments will be exacerbated.

ANDREW LIH: Yes.

This — this could be very interesting to see the repercussions of this, because does Google become the pioneer in giving other companies the boldness to say, wait a minute, we’re going to reevaluate all of our operations in China, and whether this bargain that we have made over the years is worth it anymore?

Google said — has a famous saying, don’t be evil. That’s kind of their corporate mantra. Now, when they filtered their search results off of Google.cn, it was distasteful to many people. It was questionable to a lot of folks. But Google was confident that they weren’t being evil.

Now they’re reevaluating the entire situation again. And a lot of other companies will be as well, if this is part of the new landscape, where they can not even trust the security of their servers, offices, and employees in China, because this does have implications for their work force in China as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just a brief last word, Xiao Qiang. Is there room for a compromise here? Or what do you expect to happen next?

XIAO QIANG: Well, I don’t see the Chinese government today, as the most powerful authoritarian regime, will compromise what they perceive is a regime security with a company like a Google.

But, in the long run, I do think Google represents the force of Internet and the future of Internet. The Chinese government can run what the Chinese now today call Chinternet. Chinternet vs. Internet, I think, ultimately, Chinternet will lose.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Xiao Qiang and Andrew Lih, thank you both very much.