Page last updated at 12:20 GMT, Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Google's about turn in China

Man walks past Google sign

Google's change of heart over China raises wider issues, says regular commentator Bill Thompson.

Google has responded to what it terms "a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure" aimed at getting access to the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists by announcing its desire to stop censoring search results on its Google.cn website.

Writing on the official Google blog the company's chief legal officer David Drummon says that "over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law".

But there is clearly little expectation that this will be possible and Google has apparently decided that it will, if necessary, stop operating in China.

At the same time it has announced that all access to Gmail will now be over the more secure encrypted https protocol by default instead of the usual http standard that sends data as clear text.

It's a move that is clearly being made in response to the hacking and makes a lot of sense.

The censorship goes back to January 2006 when Google launched its Chinese search engine to widespread criticism.

Building a service around the restrictions insisted upon by the Chinese government meant that searches for topics like Tiananmen brought up very different results when carried out in China, with no images of the student protests or their violent suppression coming up.

Rising pressure

The company defended its approach at the time, arguing that it was following local laws and that the benefits of bringing information - even censored information - to the people of China outweighed the need to hold to the corporate motto "don't be evil", because sometimes a little bit of evil was unavoidable.

It also made good business sense, of course.

Other Western search companies were already operating in China and local search engines were acquiring users in one of the fastest-growing internet markets in the world, a market that no western company could afford to ignore.

Google may believe its services are a force for good, but they are also, and must be, a force for profit too, even if they are free at the point of use.
Bill Thompson
Threatening to pull out of China is like threatening to spit on a whale
Bill Thompson


But now things have changed, and the attacks on Gmail accounts of human rights activitists seem to have tipped the scale back to the side of being good

Google now apparently recognises that its presence in China has not encouraged openness or built pressure on the authorities to reduce the degree of control and censorship and that its support for the current system may in fact have given it credibility.

Yet the attack on Gmail cannot have come as a surprise, and even though Google is careful not to accuse the authorities of direct involvement the implication is clear.

Groups such as Students for a Free Tibet are being hacked all the time, and the US government has acknowledged that China is a main origin of attempts to infiltrate and disrupt US government websites.

Of course liberal democracies do the same, passing laws like the US Patriot Act or our own Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act that legalise interception and provide a framework for spying and snooping.

Chinese attempts to break into the Gmail accounts of human rights activists are as legal as attempts by the UK secret service to infiltrate the e-mail accounts of religious extremists who are considered potential terrorists.

Google's search results are filtered and censored here in the UK to take account of legal constraints such as laws against images of child abuse.

Google and other webmail providers also routinely provide access to customer data when the authorities require it under the law, both in the UK and elsewhere, and European ISPs are obliged to retain and turn over details of our online interactions if needed to investigate crime.

'Wrong way'

Here in the UK, Peter Barron, former editor of BBC Newsnight and now Google UK's head of communications, has been all over the media giving their side of the story.

I haven't seen any response from Chinese government spokespeople, and doubt one will be forthcoming.

Google may be big news in the west, but the decision of one search engine provider to renege on its agreement to follow local laws and ask for an exemption is unlikely to merit a formal response.

Threatening to pull out of China is like threatening to spit on a whale. It may make Google feel better, but organisations working to open up China and change its policies know that threats are simply not going to work.

Perhaps the senior management team at Google are simply guilty of believing all the stories in the media that paint them as all-powerful and supremely important, or perhaps they just don't know as much about real politics as they do about building better search or targeting adverts.

When Google went into China I wrote that it was making the right choice and that a policy of constructive engagement was the only effective way forward.

Even though it has clearly failed in this instance I still believe that we will only make progress if we talk to those with whom we disagree, and if we try at least to understand the complexities that face us as different cultures try to find ways to use the technologies that underpin the global internet.

Google's approach is not the way to effect change.


Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet. He is currently working with the BBC on its archive project.



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