Would Google Leaving China Be Bold Or Cowardly?

Yesterday, Google announced that it was fed up with China. It had been struggling with China for quite some time, tolerating its censorship laws, due to its policy to follow the laws of whatever countries it does business in. But China has finally struck its last nerve: it is now threatening to shut down its operation in China. Most analyses that I've read think that would be a pretty bold move, but I'm not so sure.

Before getting into my thoughts on this topic, I want to direct your attention to a post from last night by James Fallows. He's forgotten more about China than I know, so his analysis on the political and global implications of this event is extremely valuable. He believes that this development adds to the argument that China's government may be entering a phase where the rest of the world views its leaders as deliberately antagonistic.

So what exactly caused Google's anger? They had been tolerating censorship for quite some time, but something different happened recently: a new and extremely disturbing cyber attack occurred. Google's blog explains:

In mid-December, we detected a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google. However, it soon became clear that what at first appeared to be solely a security incident--albeit a significant one--was something quite different.

First, this attack was not just on Google. As part of our investigation we have discovered that at least twenty other large companies from a wide range of businesses--including the Internet, finance, technology, media and chemical sectors--have been similarly targeted. We are currently in the process of notifying those companies, and we are also working with the relevant U.S. authorities.

Second, we have evidence to suggest that a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. Based on our investigation to date we believe their attack did not achieve that objective. Only two Gmail accounts appear to have been accessed, and that activity was limited to account information (such as the date the account was created) and subject line, rather than the content of emails themselves.

Third, as part of this investigation but independent of the attack on Google, we have discovered that the accounts of dozens of U.S.-, China- and Europe-based Gmail users who are advocates of human rights in China appear to have been routinely accessed by third parties. These accounts have not been accessed through any security breach at Google, but most likely via phishing scams or malware placed on the users' computers.

A cynical view of this news might be that Google's hubris caused its reaction to this attack. Once its intellectual property is at stake, it gets serious. But thinking more deeply about what the company actually says above, I think a very different conclusion should be reached.

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We know that a) cyber attacks are not uncommon and b) Google had managed to tolerate China's censorship polices up to now. The difference here is the nature of the attack. Google is infuriated, not just that its own data was compromised, but that the attack appears to have been politically motivated. What angers Google so much is that opponents of human rights are trying to gather the private information stored through Google services of those who fight for human rights.

Now Google doesn't come out and say that the Chinese government orchestrated these attacks. But whoever did certainly doesn't sympathize with human rights activists' cause -- and neither does the government. So, to me, this sort of looks like a situation where Google is challenging the Chinese government to take action against those who sought to violate the privacy of human rights activists. If China fails to comply with this request, then Google may exit China. The one thing it won't tolerate is the Chinese government's acquiescence to hackers targeting a specific group of individuals for political reasons.

From a business perspective, this shows a pretty serious dedication by Google to its ideals. It's "don't be evil" mantra is being upheld here, at the cost of significant revenue potential in China. It's easy for someone like me to say that Google shouldn't do business in a nation that has such politically unsavory policies, but I don't have millions or billions of dollars at stake like Google does by making this decision.

I think it would be rather tragic if Google does exit the Chinese market, however. On some level that would kind of be like Google "letting the terrorists win." If it really wishes to fight evil, as its motto indicates, then simply throwing in the towel seems like the easy way out. If Google really wants to make a statement, then it should continue to fight the good fight and use its technological prowess to make its systems impenetrable to such attacks so that its search and services can enhance the lives and knowledge of the Chinese people.