After discovering that hundreds of politically sensitive Gmail accounts had been hacked by the Chinese government, Google’s giving China a choice – let us provide uncensored search results on Google.cn, or we’re pulling out of China.
That’s like no choice at all – of course China’s not going to allow uncensored search results within its national borders. Since Google’s China engine launched in January 2006, Google has adopted a policy of cooperation with the Chinese government, regularly blocking searches like “Tienanmen Square massacre.” Ending that cooperation means ending the Chinese relationship, which will cost Google over $600 billion in annual revenue.
What’s this mean for the future of Chinese free speech? A few questions:
1) At what point does a cyber attack become an act of war? Let’s say China was instead caught hacking into a few hundred department of defense email accounts – what would we do? Counter-hack them, or call them to the carpet on the diplomatic stage? What is the proportional response for a cyber attack?
2) So Google’s out of the Chinese camp and back on the fence – what will it take for them to go completely to the side of Chinese dissidents? Google’s vast resources and innovative thinking could easily produce anti-filtration or IP masking software that could be distributed through email or flash drive, giving dissidents a way to communicate without a trace.
Some have speculated that Google’s next move is something this overt, but I sincerely doubt it. The only reason Google cares about Chinese censorship is that they themselves were hit – for four years, they were an active participant in Chinese censorship, so it’s hard to envision a future in which Google sticks its necks out without a profit motive.
3) When Google leaves, who’ll remain? Meet Baidu, a Chinese search engine with close ties to the Chinese government, and is currently the third most popular search engine in the world. It’s within spitting distance of Yahoo, and given that China’s where the highest global projected internet growth is, it may even best Google in a few years. Will Google’s morality play seem wise if it grants an even more restrictive competitor total market control?
Sadly, all we’ve got right now are questions. Let’s hope, for the sake of freedom of speech in China, that the answers aren’t too terrifying.