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Thursday, Jan. 21, 2010

Citizens lose in Google vs. China


The challenge thrown down by Google last week seemed unequivocal: Either China accepts uncensored information on Google.cn or the Internet giant will shut down its operations in the country.

"We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn," said David Drummond, senior vice president and Google's chief legal officer. "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."

The ultimatum seemed to launch a battle of the titans — the world's most powerful Internet company and the world's rising economic superpower, a real-life, 21st century battle to the death reminiscent of King Kong vs. Godzilla.

Moreover, Google's motto, "Don't be evil," cast this struggle in a moral light, good vs. bad, the forces of light arrayed against the forces of darkness.

Put in those terms, the outcome is predetermined. To the Chinese Communist Party, censorship is vital to its continued monopoly on power. Hence, Google will have to end its operations in China. But, theoretically at least, that is not necessarily the case.

Actually, more than a week later, Reuters reported that "most of the filters on Google.cn were still in place" although "controls over some searches, including the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, appear to have been loosened."

Google, it appears, is awaiting the outcome of talks with the Chinese government. But what is there to negotiate? However, the fact that Google is seeking negotiations is revealing.

After all, in the Drummond statement of Jan. 12, Google made it clear that what triggered the company's threat to quit China was not the censorship that it had been practicing ever since it launched Google.cn four years ago but rather cyber- attacks "on our corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google."

Google Inc. apparently tried to rally other companies that had been subjected to such cyber-attacks but was unsuccessful. Yahoo, however, issued a statement saying it "stands aligned" with Google in condemning Chinese cyber- attacks. For that, it was resoundingly criticized by its Chinese partner, the Alibaba Group, for being "reckless given the lack of facts in evidence."

It is difficult to trace the source of Internet attacks and, while Google may have strong suspicions, it apparently does not have incontrovertible evidence that the Chinese government is responsible.

China has been suspected as the source of numerous cyber-attacks, not only in the United States but in Europe and elsewhere. In fact, India's national security adviser, M.K. Narayanan, was quoted in The Times as saying that his office and other Indian government departments were also targeted Dec. 15, the same day that Google and other American organizations were targeted.

A confidential FBI report, recently leaked, alleged that China has 30,000 military cyber-spies, plus more than 150,000 private-sector computer experts. The report, cited by an article in The Daily Beast, an American news reporting and opinion Web site, likened the potential destructive power of cyber- attacks to weapons of mass destruction. The article said the mission of the Chinese cyber-spies "is to steal American military and technological secrets and cause mischief in government and financial services."

China has never acknowledged taking part in cyber-attacks. In fact, after Google made its allegations, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson responded: "Chinese laws prohibit any form of cyber- attacks, including hacking."

The Alibaba Group, no doubt, is extremely aware of the sensitivities of the Chinese government. The fact that it publicly distanced itself from Yahoo, its business partner, suggests that China is not about to compromise in any negotiations with Google.

Moreover, Google is turning into an issue in Sino-American relations. The U.S. has already called on China for an explanation with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying that Google's allegations raised "very serious concerns."

But Beijing has already made it clear that it will not back down. Since the Communist Party will not allow the lifting of censorship and the Chinese government will not admit to launching cyber-attacks on Google or anyone else, even if China agrees to hold negotiations with the Internet company, deadlock is the most likely outcome.

Google's days in China, it appears, are numbered. This will result in a loss of earnings for the company, a loss of face for the Chinese government and a narrowing of information horizons for the Chinese people.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.


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