Google may no longer be a verb in China if the search giant doesn't get its way and be allowed to operate an uncensored search engine in the country.
In an interview with CNN, Google's chief legal officer David Drummond said: "[We] just no longer in good conscience can continue to censor our results. And so it's kind of up to the Chinese government as to whether they want to work with us in a way that will allow us to be there on that basis."
Up to the government of one of the world's largest economies and consumer markets to work with a U.S. company? I would have thought it would be the other way round.
In an interview with CNN, blogger Danny Sullivan said Google's position on the matter is the kind of brash approach that industry analysts have come to expect from the company. "That actually felt very Google-like. It's the kind of thing they would do."
Google's latest wrath was the result of what it claims were "highly sophisticated and targeted" attacks on the company's network that originated from China. The attacks, which Google said also targeted 20 other large companies in Internet, finance, technology and media, aimed to access Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.
Google hasn't directly pointed a finger at the Chinese government, choosing merely to suggest through implication, but security researchers who have analyzed the incident say the attacks showed characteristics commonly used by or on the behalf of the Chinese government. Cyberintelligence company iDefense adds that the IP addresses from which the attacks were launched, have known association with previous attacks used by groups that are directly employed Chinese government agents.
If the allegations are true, and China was behind the network hacks, then the situation is troubling. It is one thing to ask that local laws be observed, it is another to launch cyber attacks simply to assert that directive.
But, Google's ultimatum to the Chinese government baffles me.
The company's decision to enter China in 2006 seems altruistic enough. It has said the move will at least provide Chinese online users access, albeit limited, to information. Drummond says: "We've always had a strong value of free expression and free access to information. And we decided to go into China a few years ago because we thought our being there could help to open things up there, and to help open access to information."
Awww, China's freedom fighter in shining armor.
But, in economic reality, the company has made a small dent in the country's search market. Various market stats put local search engine Baidu, in the lead with 59 percent share, while Google holds second at 30 percent, Yahoo at 6 percent and Microsoft at 4.5 percent. ComScore figures, though, were more conservative, with estimates that put Google's market share at 14.1 percent and Baidu's at 62.2 percent.
Still, the reality is that China remains home to the world's largest Internet community--338 million users, and growing. Only 25 percent of the country's population of almost 1.4 billion are actively using the Web, according to the China Internet Network Information Center.
In a media statement, U.K. search marketing firm Greenlight, said Google's departure will mean loss of advertising dollars and a likely boost to Microsoft, Yahoo and Baidu, which will serve as primary sources for accessing China's search audience. CEO Warren Cowan said: "[Share redistribution will go] most likely to Baidu, which will further cement its leadership position, and the remainder may not split equally among Bing and Yahoo users, which would further upset the balance of power for one or the other, and means growing in the Chinese market is likely to make it very difficult for at least one of them." He added that ad dollars for the U.S. and global advertising industry will go overseas into Chinese pockets.
In a CNBC interview, Drummond had insisted that Google's revenue in China is small and "truly immaterial".
However, Gene Munster from investment bank and securities firm Piper Jaffray, estimates that the company's China operations would account for 2 percent of its overall 2010 revenue, or what market analysts predict to be about US$400 million of an expected total revenue of US$20.47 billion.
Perhaps US$400 million is chump change for Google's deep pockets, but there's no doubt the Chinese market is a cashcow waiting to be milked.
Microsoft, for one, certainly knows that. CEO Steve Ballmer says about the saga: "We've been quite clear that we are going to operate in China [and] and we're going to abide by the law. Cyberattacks are an unfortunate way of life."
That's a smart move on Microsoft's part and on any other foreign entity that chooses to remain in China, with the clear understanding that when in Rome, you have to do as the Romans do.
The Chinese government has always played hardball, and its beef with foreign Internet entities isn't new, dating as far back as the 1990s. China has shown that it will not bow to political, social or economic pressures--international or otherwise.
Sometimes, the best way to deal with hardballs is to work from within, and through the proper channels.
If its implication that China was involved in the cyberattacks can be substantiated, why doesn't Google instead go the American way and sue the pants off the Chinese government? Any hard evidence demonstrating the attackers' association to the Chinese government will surely leave the ruling party red-faced. Google can then still hold its head high and at the same time, continue to enjoy access to a lucrative Chinese market.
Threatening to exit a sizeable online market like China will only serve to hurt Google more than it will its government.
Also, other countries such as Australia, are making moves to make Web filtering mandatory and Internet service providers will have to block material--rated under refused classification--hosted on overseas servers. I'm assuming these will include servers operated by Google. Will the company also then threaten to leave Australia? And how many other countries can it threaten to do so before it runs out of offices to close?
Companies and individuals alike are all guided by our political and social beliefs. But, the world isn't a homogeneous mix. It would be extremely silly to expect all cultures worldwide to share and operate by the same beliefs and systems. So, by and by, we learn to accept the differences and live by the value systems of our own society, and within that of others.
Well, at least, that's the utopic gameplan. Some, like Google, will at times get a little...angsty.
I was once given a hypothesis, in which I was offered two choices. In the first option, my brother and I would each be handed $10. In the second, I would be given $100 while my brother would receive $200.
Still an angsty teenager back then, I immediately chose the first option. Living in a culture that persists to value male offspring over female, I was hell-bent on making known my stance about gender equality--even if doing so meant my loot would be 10 times smaller in value.
Years later, I realized my choice had served primarily to my disadvantage. If I had opted for the second alternative, both my brother and I would have stood to gain more. It would have been a win-win situation for both parties.
Yes, doing so may be interpreted to mean I had caved to economic pressures at the expense of my social standing. But, I choose instead for it to mean that I recognize the limits of the society and culture I grew up in, and that this one choice--to accept $100 instead of $10--in no way lessens my own belief that my intrinsic value as a female Singaporean Chinese is no smaller, or bigger, than my male counterparts.
What I personally believe, and how I ultimately choose to live my life, is more important than what others think it should be. I aim to live by my own guidelines, while recognizing that I should do so within the social, political and economic differences of others.
Every one person, society, culture, nation and region, evolves at its own pace. Women in the U.S. were not given the right to vote until 1920. In China, this golden year for women was 1949. In Singapore, it was 1947.
I truly believe that China will one day, however far down the future that may be, realize it is in the interest of its people not to censor the Internet. The question is, though, will Google still be there to enjoy that revelation?