GBS: Google and China

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, 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.

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 and 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:

First, this decision goes well beyond Google; it will have major diplomatic implications.

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.

‘Google executives have privately fretted that the decision to censor the search results on, to filter out topics banned by Chinese censors, was out of sync with the company’s motto, “Don’t be evil.”’ - New York Times, linked above

It has also done the company a very great deal of PR damage. As has the GBS.

Thanks for this. I was totally confused how the industrial espionage stuff linked up to their decisions about search and what people were tapping into that gave them subject lines but no email. It made no sense. Thanks for filling in some of the pieces.

Interesting comment piece on this in The Register:

Amnesty International was among the human rights organisations scrambling to congratulate Google for threatening to pull out of China today.

Which just shows how much human rights activists know about technology. Come to think of it, if human rights campaigners did know more about technology, they might think twice about using Gmail accounts. [A word to the wise - GS]

It’s hard to see Google’s move as a brave and principled strike against China’s intolerance of political dissent. The ad broker has said it’s no longer prepared to censor searches in China. So, does that mean it’s simply kicked the problem of policing Chinese Google searches to the Chinese themselves? It’s a sensible bit of outsourcing really – censorship is one of Beijing’s core competencies. And they’ll probably do it more efficiently.

Two thought-provoking comments from readers; this one, which points out that Google itself is in a prime position to conduct industrial espionage against the firms that use its ‘cloud computing’ facilities, and this one:

I know Google Do No Evil, but are we really expected to believe that they are considering closing an operation worth well over $300 million a year because 2 email accounts of human rights activists were phished?

And how on earth did Google ever notice that the phished accounts belonged to human rights activists? And if the accounts were indeed phished/malwared then can a reg reader please explain to me how come no email content was compromised? And how the hell could Google know 20 other companies were “similarly targeted”? And what is the relationship between this story and China’s internal censorship policy…

I’m not going to get into a human rights debate, but this story just doesn’t add up…


In December 2009 Google did nothing to stand up for human rights and against censorship besides mouth the same pretty words it always has.

In January 2010 Google threatened to break Chinese law, putting at risk a market of 100 million Google users, the safety of all Google employees in China, and all Google property in China.

What changed? Too much guilt? The Grinch heard the Hoos singing and his heart grew?

A serious business problem grew from something Google thought it could ignore to something it thought it could not ignore.

I want people to move away from the focus on free speech and human rights because those are OUR concerns. This is a complex and potentially Web-shattering move on Google’s part. It was not taken lightly. To get a realistic picture of what is at stake we must get beyond the concerns of US liberals such as ourselves.

This is China, after all. And nothing Google does in terms of censorship of Web search is going to make one bit of difference to anyone suffering under Chinese oppression. Finding pictures of tanks just does not matter that much.

Google would not, should not, could not risk all that because it felt a bit icky about doing business with China. If it had, Google would have done this long ago.

Every corporation in the world mouths pretty words about being responsible and moral. Even tobacco companies do. Henry Ford was convinced he led a company from the moral high ground. There is no substance to claims of corporate responsibility short of marketing strategy.

Who is being unrealistic here?

Google’s change from December 2009 to January 2010 was, by all accounts, driven by both economic and moral factors. Guilt, integrity, PR, market position, and cybersecurity risks were all part of the decision. The intrusions were either the straw that broke the camel’s back or the occasion for a larger reevaluation.

This is a decision with moral consequences, which Google justifies in part on moral grounds, and which Google claims to have made in part for moral reasons. Your insistence on describing the situation in purely economic terms deprives us of that useful perspective. It requires us to believe that Google’s executives are either unaware of their own motivations, lying about them, or irrelevant. Corporations are complicated institutions made up of complicated people who interact in complicated ways. No person—and no actual corporation—ever acts in a purely selfish utility-maximizing fashion.

And as for the common corporate belief that their deeds are moral, I’ve been exposed to (personally, in the media, and in scholarship) a fairly wide variety of such claims. Google’s strike me as more sincerely held than most, and better connected to reality than most. There’s some hot air there (particularly near the top, where hot air tends to accumulate), but it’s not all false or empty.

I’m not claiming that the moral motives are the only thing at work, only that they are at work. Your teleological view of the corporation—profit uber alles—doesn’t jibe with Google or with most other companies’ actual, messy actions. The system often displays such tendencies, but zoom in any closer and the sociology gets a lot more complicated.

Well, “all accounts” means taking Google blog posts at their words. I think we should have learned by now that Google’s claims of benevolence merely serve its marketing goals. Whether they mean it or not does not matter. I don’t see why we should buy it from Google when we don’t buy it from Chevron.

What’s in their hearts does not matter.

Motivations don’t free dissidents. Neither do search results.

Google clearly does not want people to focus on the insecurity of their systems. That’s why no company made noise about his until now. To distract from the vulnerabilities, Google made sure to make that empty pledge to offer uncensored search on Do you really think that is going to happen?

So getting back to my larger point: paying attention to the moral implications only makes Google execs feel better, makes us feel better, and fools us into thinking that such issues are of central importance to anyone with anything at stake.

The problem is that free speech is simple and understandable here in the US.

Internet security is complicated and boring to most people.

If we continue to focus on the so far empty gesture of wishing for uncensored search results — and thus a clear violation of Chinese law — then we miss the bigger story.

The bigger story will matter much more in the long and short terms. Can we trust the security of any online service? Are they all vulnerable to state hackers? How about non-state actors?

THAT is a big deal. If we don’t focus on that we will be in much bigger trouble.

That’s why I applaud Google for taking a stand for the Internet. The future of the Internet is at stake. Obviously, what is good for the Internet is good for Google.

Remember that the GBS allows Google to delete from the book data base up to 15% of scanned works for “editorial reasons”and unlimited works for “legal” reasons, and we have understood all along that this allowed Google to delete works deemed odious to foreign host nations, including works of history, religion, human sexuality, works on evolution, women’s rights, etc. Hasn’t Google always promised cooperation with foreign host nations re: internet content censorship , and embedded this promise in the heart of the GBS endeavor?

I completely agree that the security issues deserve to be front and center in these conversations, as well.

What is the difference between China violating copyrights of others and America violating the copyrights of others? In China it is “industrial espionage”; in America it is a noble scheme. Douglas Fevens, Halifax, Nova Scotia The University of Wisconsin, Google, & Me

From googles view point, This Settlement looks costly : guilt by association.

The Authors Guild is turning out to be, not a very creditable representative of anything much. The claim that it represents the whole ‘class’ of authors is looking a lot like compulsory collectivsation . A tad awkward no ?.

“This Settlement “— I meant the books settlement.

After China pull-out bluster, will Google backtrack?

… almost a month after its strongly-worded statement, Google hasn’t followed through on its plan and continues censoring its search results in China. – Computerworld

History shows that western companies break off business dealings in China over money, not principles. Example: The Dannon yogurt war, and there are others.

History shows that western companies break off business dealings in China over money, not principles.— Jerome Garchik

New York Times: Google Calls for Action on Web Limits

He said censorship had become more than a human rights issue and was hurting profit for foreign companies that rely on the Internet to reach customers.—Alan Davidson, director of public policy for Google

Douglas Fevens, Halifax, Nova Scotia— The University of Wisconsin, Google, & Me

Friends say the real politick of doing biz in china is complex, there are lots of competing layers of… authorities. It is not uncommon to almost reach an agreement only to have some other previously unknown ‘authority figure’ suddenly turn up at the table and demand a slice. Risky to read to much into it.


Your original Jan.13th entry and undated Update deserve re-reading and wide attention in view of this weeks Google announcement on China,and yesterday’s interview with Sergy Brin in the Wall St.Journal. In my comments I have tried to relate the China developments to the GBS and the book scanning project.