Google picks a fight with China after cyber-attack

Google says it may quit China after a hacker attack. A principled stand, or a convenient excuse?

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

What’s Google up to? The internet giant has promised to stop filtering its results in China – and if necessary, pull out of the country altogether – in a row over a ‘highly sophisticated and targeted attack’ not only on Google itself, but also on the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. The party line will presumably be that it’s taking a stand for freedom of speech (albeit belatedly). But it’s also possible that it’s done its sums and decided that this is an ideal opportunity to get out of China with its head held high…

Google insists this wasn’t just any old cyber-attack – after all, it gets these all the time, so it’s hardly a reason for a strategic U-turn per se. In its official blog, it claims that ‘at least twenty other large companies’ were also targeted – mostly Silicon Valley firms across various sectors. Then there’s the specific targeting of activists’ email accounts – not only on this occasion but also ‘routinely’ in the past. (Admittedly this latest attack only managed to get into two accounts, and even then didn’t get hold of any emails, but still.)

Then comes Google’s interesting logical leap: since this attack ‘goes to the heart of a much bigger global debate about freedom of speech’, it says, it’s decided to stop filtering its search results in China – a decision it made back in 2006, much to the chagrin of many in the West. And if the government won’t allow that, it’ll get out of China altogether. So the only possible inference is that it doesn’t think these attacks are the work of anonymous Chinese hackers – at some level, it clearly believes the Chinese authorities are either behind these attacks, or at the very least not doing enough to prevent them. That’s a pretty sensational claim, however you look at it (and explains why Hillary Clinton has been quick to get involved).

It’s worth remembering just how much stick Google got for agreeing to self-censorship in the first place. The decision just didn’t sit well with a company that once had the motto ‘Don’t Be Evil’ - but with China’s internet audience now at 340m (and penetration still only around the 20% mark) it clearly felt it was a price worth paying to get a foothold. It’s easy to imagine Google thinking now that having jumped through the government’s hoops, the least it can expect is a bit of protection from this kind of cyber-hack. Attacks on the Gmail accounts of human rights activists are particularly embarrassing, because they highlight the compromise Google has made.

Equally, it also seems plausible that Google has looked at its commercial position in China – it controls less than a third of the market, way behind local favourite Baidu, and supposedly makes around $600m there, a tiny proportion of its overall revenues – and decided that it’s more trouble than it’s worth. This row provides the perfect excuse to extract itself from an embarrassing situation with its dignity intact and its principles restored.

In today's bulletin:

Google picks a fight with China after cyber-attack
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Editor's blog: Mandelson's credibility problem
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