Google's Decision: What It Means

I haven't been able to fully digest the ramifications of Google's announcement that it will stop filtering its search engine results in China and may indeed pull its business out of the country entirely.  Yes, Google's webprint in China isn't that big. But that's not the point.

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.

I'm going to follow Jim Fallows on this -- our resident technologist and China hand (and politics hand and journalism hand and Iraq hand and...).

But there are several things worth pointing out. One is that Google admitted to having been hacked. One of the major obstacles in the country preventing a full and complete discussion of the age of cyberpower is the shyness that many companies exhibit when it comes to acknowledging security vulnerabilities. When the Granddaddy of them all, Google, becomes transparent on the issue, other companies -- maybe even banks (!) -- will feel less inhibited. (These coverups are among the reason why the country remains blissfully unaware of the cyberthreat.)

A follow-up Google post:

Many corporations and consumers regularly come under cyber attack, and Google is no exception. We recently detected a cyber attack targeting our infrastructure and that of at least 20 other publicly listed companies. This incident was particularly notable for its high degree of sophistication. We believe Google Apps and related customer data were not affected by this incident. Please read more about our public response on the Official Google Blog.

From the standpoint of pressing China on human rights, suffice it to say that Google has a freer hand than the U.S. government. And it may set an example for other companies, who will now face similar pressure to either acknowledge the Chinese cyber attacks or the increased surveillance of dissidents.

Some folks are suggesting that Google is attempting to cover for the flood of complaints that its new Nexus One phone has received. That's not likely. That Google's decision is likely to benefit them in other ways -- perhaps in inducing a more favorable regulatory climate over here -- is more responsible analysis.

A final political angle: today, Jill Hazelbaker, familiar to readers of this column as John McCain's campaign communications director, started work today as chief of Google corporate communications.  Suffice it to say that Hazelbaker is used to being thrust into chaotic situations.


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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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