Privacy concerns, censorship in China, undermining the business model of every partner they work with from Apple to mapping companies; Google often acts as a financially aware business without seeming to pay too much attention to its motto. Responding to a hacking attempt that they probably suspect is at least the very least condoned by the Chinese government by taking a stand – that’s doing both.
The Internet, John Gilmore of the EFF famously said, practically censorship as damage, and routes around it; not when the censorship is at too deep a level to route around. Last year, Chinese surfers wouldn’t have seen news about crackdowns in Tibet and search engines like Google were self censoring in China (although Pakistan’s attempt to block YouTube nationally was done by Pakistan Telecom without YouTube’s agreement, which may or may not say something about the relative economic importance of the two markets to Internet companies). Companies who wouldn’t dream of censoring information for Western consumers agreed to censor in China “in the belief that the benefits of increased access to information for people in China and a more open Internet outweighed our discomfort ,” as Google puts it. The hope has been – as with holding the Olympics in China – that offering the carrot rather than the stick would help China open up to business and to Western views of human rights; Google’s decision to stop censoring and, if necessary, to pull out of China is showing the stick.
Futurist Mark Anderson (whose 2010 predictions we were talking about at the end of last year has been critiquing China for a while and saying that Western businesses are deluded if they think they can trade with China on an equal footing. A few days before Google’s decision he claimed that China has “an economic model designed to gut its trading partners” and that human rights have been declining rather than improving.
“China has tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of human censors monitoring citizen clicks and comments on the China government–controlled Internet. When my friend’s teenage daughter (a U.S. citizen) taught English there last year, police came to her apartment and grilled her about specific computer entries she had made. When one of Australia’s top mining firms, Rio Tinto, refused to allow China’s Chinalco to double its ownership interest last year (to 18%), China arrested local CEO (and Australian citizen) Stern Hu and three managers, who remain in jail today, under espionage charges. China denies any connection. In politics, thought, and business, China remains a police state.
“The now-documented cyber attacks by Chinese-sourced computers against Western economic and military targets, suddenly ramping up on a straight line for the last two to three years, deserve more public conversation. Recent estimates are that 80% of such global attacks on U.S. economic, infrastructure, and military targets come directly or indirectly from the Chinese government and military.” Nart Villeneuve’s blog has a good summary of those kind of attacks.
Anderson made some harsh comments on China and the companies that trade in and with China. “It pays to steal IP, to use slave labor wages, to lie about trade practices, to ship pirated goods into foreign markets, to force IP disclosure in return for limited market access, to subsidize exports, and to manipulate currencies. Is there any part of this that is legal in international terms, or that should be applauded by the world community?
“What can its trading partners do to help bring China into compliance with global economic practice? Insist on actions, not words. Use tariffs when dumping, subsidies, or internal structural market blocs are the issues. Insist on justice where IP is involved. Do not disclose IP to China, under any circumstances. Stand up for your own rights and property; refuse to be bullied. If you can’t trade there, trade elsewhere. Make sure that goods made in China do not use slave labour, in one form or another. Make your goods somewhere else. Instead of rewarding outrageous behaviour, condemn it, in public.”
And for the first time, that’s what Google is doing. Insisting that China back down on censoring Google (and stops trying to hack them) meets the ‘don’t be evil’ claim; but if it’s a step towards turning China into a superpower that plays better with others, then it’s pretty sound business sense as well.