Monday 18 January 2010

Googleless in China

The only question that arises from Google’s declared intention to pull out of China is why it has taken so long? This is a country governed by a corrupt oligarchy, so frightened of its own people and of freedom of speech, so frightened by a possible loss of ‘harmony’, that it will not even allow access to Facebook or Twitter.

The official Communist Party line, reiterated recently by the foreign ministry, is that the internet in China is ‘uncensored’, an obvious lie. Well, not quite; for in their scrutable inscrutable way they expect Google to do their censoring for them, disabling some functions on its internet browsers and self-censoring search results for Chinese users.

That’s one thing; hacking into the accounts of Chinese dissidents is quite another. “Chinese law”, the foreign ministry said, “prohibits any cyber attacks including hacking.” But of course respect for law is not something that one associates with Communists. It reveals so much that the hackers, presumably from within the state security apparatus, have targeted human rights activists, compromising their Gmail accounts. This is not something recent. Teng Biao, a law professor and human rights advocate, has said that his email was first hacked as long ago as 2007. So, too, has that of Zeng Jinyan, the wife of the jailed dissident Hu Jia. Others have also experience this kind of attack.

Although Google itself, in announcing its possible departure from the ‘People’s Republic’, has stopped short of accusing the Chinese government of responsibility for these cyber attacks, there is clear evidence of its guilt. A report by Verisign’s iDefence Labs, an American internet security firm, confirms that the hacker attacks on Google and thirty other US companies can be traced back to a clearly identifiable source;

the internet addresses of the attack correspond to a single foreign entity consisting either of the agents of the Chinese state or the proxies thereof.

I think that China needs Google more than Google needs China. The search engine has become such a crucial part of information exchange and international business; local search engines are a third-rate substitute. The paradox is that while freedom of speech is suppressed in China in the manner one associates with Communist regimes, freedom of information cannot be controlled in the same way on the internet; or it can, but only by selectively disabling access to websites, and for private mail accounts to receive a visit from the secret police hackers.

To see their tools, the tools of freedom, turned into a method of political surveillance was clearly a step too far for Google. It’s a pity they compromised themselves by association with this shabby tyranny in the first place.


  1. I couldn't agree more. I suppose we can only be heartened by the fact that they have now seen sense rather than compromise themselves further.

    Congratulations on a very intelligent blog by the way.I've enjoyed browsing your back posts.

  2. If I was going to have a bet on this it would be that the Chinese Government does nothing; Google won't pull out and all will realise that censoring the internet is a falacy and you can't do it. Here in Indonesia the government threw a cheap sop to the religious right regarding internet porn before the last election and passed a bill making the downloading of porn punishable by a million years in chokey or some such; knowing all the while that the downloading is done in internet cafes mostly because people don't have computers at home unless they are well off. In any case the government does not have the people or the technology to follow up the law. Everyone knows this and I am sure that everyone in China knows it too regarding the invasions of privacy they get. Use a proxy server for your e-mails. Anyone who gets their e-mails hacked wants it to happen. Google is grandstanding. Just about all the condemnations of China's human rights record amount to no more than grandstanding.

  3. You might very well be right, John. I shall await events.

  4. For Google to publicly say no more, as they did on Jan 12, is refreshing. After all, it is a big market, at least is perceived as such, and there are those who are willing to maintain silence. Here, for example, is the response from the Microsoft boss, Steve Ballmer: I guess he thinks he's smarter and cute.

  5. I dare say that a lack of ad revenue also helped Google decide to do the right thing. It is a pity that they compromised their integrity in the first place. Maybe they'll learn a lesson from this.

  6. I tend to agree with Duckam, its the more the merrier as far as google is concerned.

  7. Thanks, guys. I'll check out that link, Jonathan.