13 January 2010

Going Googly in China

The news that Google was no longer prepared to censor its search results in China has a number of interesting and important aspects.

First, it's worth noting that this extremely big news was not announced at a press conference, or even with a press release, but on a blog. That's not so surprising given that Google prides itself on being geeky, but it has one huge implication: any journalist that is not following blogs (and I'd also add Twitter) is no longer adequately equipped to stay on top of the news. The press release is officially dead (and good riddance.)

The other thing that is striking is what is not said. Google speaks of

a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China

It then announces that as a result of this attack:

We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn

But hang on a minute: how on earth will removing censorship diminish the likelihood of further attacks? Censorship, it would seem, has nothing to do with those attacks - unless Google is suggesting that the Chinese government was behind those attacks in some way, with this latest move from the company as a direct retaliation and warning.

And that, of course, is precisely what is going on, but there is no mention of any of this explicitly in the blog post. Nonetheless, it is extraordinary that a company should thus publicly, if only implicitly, accuse a government of being involved in attacks on its system.

As to the consequences of Google's statement, I imagine that the Chinese government will just block Google completely - China's recent actions show that it is no mood for compromise. Indeed, it is actually clamping down *harder* on the Internet, so anything like uncensored search results will be totally unacceptable.

Unfortunately, I don't think this will have much effect within China. The leading search engine, Baidu, will just pick up the slack. Many people on the Internet in China regard the West's attitude to censorship and freedom of speech as hypocritical, and unwarranted meddling. It will be easy for the Chinese government to sell this as arrogant Westerners lecturing to the Chinese (again) as a way of covering up their failure to topple Baidu.

More interesting is the effect this has on the West. The latter has been increasingly subservient to China recently, with its pathetic acceptance of the crackdown in Tibet and Xinjiang, and its acquiescence in the propaganda of the Olympic games. This was largely based on the fact that China's economy was perceived as so important that other issues fell by the wayside (although I was under the impression that there was a name for selling oneself in this way for a bit of dosh.)

Google's action, if picked up by others, might lead to the West taking a more principled approach, whereby it is not prepared to sell its soul for a few Renminbi. Sadly, it's probably too much to expect the West to drop its hypocritical actions (censorship, surveillance) as well....


brianlj said...

Interesting that Google posted their blog announcement on the same day that Baidu had had its DNS hijacked by the Iranian Cyber Army.


Glyn Moody said...

@brian: yes, but do you think there's any deeper significance? I can't think of any.