Yesterday, I refrained from blogging a new story that Google had temporarily broken off talks with Chinese authors. It was sourced only to Chinese news agencies and was thinly reported. I wanted to see whether the U.S. press could obtain a fuller explanation.
It transpired, however, that the Google-in-China story is much larger. In a post on Google’s official blog, its chief legal officer, David Drummond, announced a “new approach to China”. Google has been a a target of significant industrial espionage whose goal appears to be obtaining information on Chinese human rights activists. As a response, due to high-level conversations within Google, the company is rethinking its business in China:
We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, 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 Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.
Decisions of this sort are the subject of my article The Google Dilemma, which closes with a discussion of the very different search results available for “tienanmen” on Google.com and Google.cn. When I wrote the article, the American version showed protesters and tanks; the Chinese version showed the Gate of Heavenly Peace itself. Now, the Chinese version also links to articles about the protests and the crackdown.
This is inherently a political decision, whichever way it is made. Search shapes how we see and experience the world, and every decision about search engages with questions of values and the law. I think the values Google has chosen with this new decision are good ones: commitments to truth, open discussion, and democracy. It’s acting in a way consistent with its “Don’t Be Evil” motto and I salute them for it.
Others have and will say much more about this than I, but a few other important points come to mind:
Second, Google’s move complicates, to say the least, the negotiations over a potential Google Books deal in China. After this move, I don’t expect either the Chinese courts (in the Mian Mian case) or the Chinese Written Works Copyright Society (in the negotiations) to be very receptive to Google positions.
And third, Siva Vaidhyanathan has been saying that the decision “nothing to do with censorship and human rights” because a move taken only on principle is “commercial malpractice” and “Google must have some good business reasons.” This view is unrealistic; it stems from the belief that because corporate managers are allowed to act solely in the interest of shareholder profit, all corporate managers do so. Google’s executives have always been clear that they take ethical principles into account in all their decisions. While many of us sometimes disagree with the specific applications, the ethical rhetoric is far too pervasive in the company not to exert a gravitational pull on its decisions. I don’t doubt that Google’s executives also weighed the commercial considerations heavily, but this is not purely a business decision.
UPDATE: Oh, yeah, one more thing. Look at one of the sources of the security vulnerabilities:
Drummond said that the hackers never got into Gmail accounts via the Google hack, but they did manage to get some “account information (such as the date the account was created) and subject line.”
That’s because they apparently were able to access a system used to help Google comply with search warrants by providing data on Google users, said a source familiar with the situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the press.
“Right before Christmas, it was, ‘Holy s*, this malware is accessing the internal intercept [systems],’” he said.
In other words, a system set up to help the United States government spy on Google users turned out to also help the Chinese government spy on them, albeit in a different way.