Google vs PRC Censors as a US-China Proxy War

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 1/13/2010 02:25:00 PM
At the risk of being accused of having a military-industrial complex by using military metaphors (IPE/IE types would call it a "realist" perspective), this latest run-in between the world's largest search engine firm and the world's largest platoon of (an estimated 30,000) censors has, ah, Korean War-like dimensions in the Internet age. I've looked this topic in the past [1, 2], but it seems Google is now keen on forcing the issue. If you'll pardon my hackneyed narrative once more, cyberspace has replaced physical territory as the fighting grounds of choice in this so-called information age. As a book I have asks, Who Rules the Net? The present proxies may not be nations, but the ultimate antagonists point in the same direction of nation-states. How realist is that for you?

Our story began on Sunday with Google SVP for Corporate Development and Chief Legal Officer David Drummond making a rather cryptic blog post regarding the future of Google's activities in China in the wake of phishing attacks launched against well-known human rights dissidents:
We launched in January 2006 in the belief that the benefits of increased access to information for people in China and a more open Internet outweighed our discomfort in agreeing to censor some results. At the time we made clear that "we will carefully monitor conditions in China, including new laws and other restrictions on our services. If we determine that we are unable to achieve the objectives outlined we will not hesitate to reconsider our approach to China."

These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered--combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web--have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on, and so 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, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down, and potentially our offices in China.
From the rest of his blog post, we may construct two statements:

(a) Google Mail users who are Chinese dissidents have been targeted for clandestine information-gathering attacks;
(c) Because of these attacks, Google is considering folding its operations in China.

What's missing here is statement (b) that links (a) and (c), and it's where things start to get curious. What could (b) be? It's probably a combination of any number of things:

(1) We have reason to believe that these phishing attacks are PRC-sponsored;
(2) We have been at odds with Chinese authorities for the longest time, and these suspicious attacks only add to our discomfort to operating in China;
(3) [and this is my favourite, cynical one] We don't make much money in China--if at all--anyway, so now's a good chance to make a martyrdom ploy in retreating from a failed expansion.

The trouble with these Google guys is their stated avowal of "Don't Be Evil"--presumably a knock on Microsoft. (This being in contrast to my Zappa-ish espousal of "We're Only In It for the Money"; other people are just asking for it.) However, being in bed with the Chinese authorities to self-censor search results while officially saying the benefits of increasing information access to the Chinese people outweigh the costs of censorship is a dubious. The specific question here is: What do scattered attacks on the e-mail accounts of Chinese dissidents have to do with improving information access for the vast majority of Chinese who aren't activists?

Today's Financial Times offers clues on all three possibilities. The plot thickens with the American intelligence community pointing the finger at official activities:
US intelligence officials believe hackers supported by the Chinese government have been behind major breaches at US defence contractors, who have in some cases been targeted using the same previous unknown software vulnerabilities as trick emails sent to Chinese dissidents. Google said that in mid-December it had identified a “highly sophisticated and targeted attack” on its corporate systems “originating in China”. The group added that it had found evidence of similar attacks on “at least” 20 other companies in finance, the media and other sectors.
So the tricks of the trade in industrial espionage are allegedly being used to spy on Chinese dissidents. Already, there has been a long history of run-ins between Google and the cyber-Gestapo. Adding fuel to the fire, Google has contacted Missus Clinton and Co. at the State Department on how to deal with China. So yes, it has the makings of a full-blown diplomatic brouhaha:
Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, said: “We have been briefed by Google on these allegations, which raise very serious concerns and questions. 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. I will be giving an address next week on the centrality of internet freedom in the 21st century, and we will have further comment on this matter as the facts become clear.”
As for the third point about marginal earnings from Google's China operations, the FT mentions the following:
By its own internal estimates its share of searches stands at only about 20 per cent, well behind market leader Baidu. With online advertising in China lagging well behind development elsewhere, Google’s China business probably only accounts for about $200m of its annual revenues, said Sandeep Aggarwal, an analyst at Collins Stewart in the US. One person close to Google said the bulk of the revenue the company earns in China comes from Chinese advertisers targeting customers in the US and Europe, and this would remain intact even if is shut down.
Meanwhile, Missus Clinton's boss President Obama already expressed typically American views on freedom of speech during his November visit to Shanghai's Museum of Science and Technology. Although his delivery on high-flying rhetoric is spotty to say the least, scoring points for his China-bashing supporters may tip things in the favour of action:
And that is why America will always speak out for these core principles around the world. We do not seek to impose any system of government on any other nation, but we also don't believe that the principles that we stand for are unique to our nation. These freedoms of expression and worship--of access to information and political participation--we believe are universal rights. They should be available to all people, including ethnic and religious minorities--whether they are in the United States, China, or any nation. Indeed, it is that respect for universal rights that guides America's openness to other countries; our respect for different cultures; our commitment to international law; and our faith in the future.
Quite apropos for today's subject matter, methinks. The last US-related piece I wish to bring up here is a post I recently made considering whether the PRC's Internet censorship may be construed as a trade violation. I used to think it a somewhat far-fetched notion until the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission held a hearing on China's "Media and Information Controls." The ECIPE also has a publication making the case for bashing China on Internet Censorship and International Trade Law.

The PRC's response has been weak and curious so far. For instance, this Xinhua article makes the curious argument that Google hasn't begun removing PRC-mandated filtering warnings. How exactly does this bolster China's case?
An official with China's State Council Information Office Wednesday said Chinese Internet authorities were seeking more information on Google's statement that it could quit China. The high-ranking official, who requested anonymity, made the remarks in a phone interview with Xinhua, a day after Google's corporate development and chief legal officer, David Drummond, posted a statement Tuesday on the company's official blog...

"It is still hard to say whether Google will quit China or not. Nobody knows," the official said. He refused to reveal more information, but promised to follow the case and accept more interviews if possible. The China Internet Illegal Information Reporting Center deputy director Xi Wei told Xinhua: "I am sorry I can't say anything. I am not clear about many problems in the case."

Drummond's post said that censorship in China and recent attacks targeting Google's services in China forced the company to make the review. However, was still posting this rider on its searches as of 6:15 p.m. Wednesday: "According to local laws, regulations and policies, some research results are not shown."
OTOH, stories of sympathy from the locals and pictures like that above are circulating, too. There are many ways this spat can degenerate to impact wider relations, from multinationals throwing in the towel on hardline Chinese policies (like tossing steel executives in the gaol for dubious reasons or bouts of tit-for-tat protectionism) to (yawn) the Yanks taking up the cause as trade litigation. As the countless cases of US trade measures against China routinely catalogued here indicate, this possibility is a real one nowadays. With friends like these...