For many liberal Western observers, the news that Google is to reconsider its relationship with the Chinese authorities comes as an overdue sign that the technology giant intends to start living up to its unofficial motto: "Don't be evil." Google's reputation has been under attack since it struck a deal with Beijing over the launch of its Chinese language search engine, Google.cn, in 2006. In return for access to millions of Chinese internet users, Google agreed to certain censorship restrictions. Let's just say that searching for "naked gay Dalai Lama holds human rights protest in Tiananmen Square" on Google.cn would have yielded limited results.
Then came the message, posted on Google's blog by the chief legal officer, David Drummond, "We have decided that 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." The reasons given for this decision have attracted as much media attention as the decision itself. In mid-December, Google uncovered a series of cyber attacks on its "corporate infrastructure." The attacks originated in China and their targets were the gmail accounts of human rights activists. They succeeded in gaining very limited information from two accounts, such as the subject-lines of emails. After conducting its own investigation, Google found that the gmail accounts of human rights campaigners in America, Europe and China had frequently been subjected to more direct attacks (involving phishing emails and malware). 20 other companies in the finance, technology, media and chemical sectors had also been targeted. Several victims have since come forward, including the US defence contractors Northrop Grumman, the security software provider Symantec and the search engine Yahoo. These attacks are thought to be commonplace and typically target intellectual property, though they are normally kept out of the public domain. The internet security firm Verisign iDefense Labs says it has traced the attacks to the Chinese government "or its proxies".
Google's announcement is likely to add further strain to Sino-US relations, which deteriorated during the Copenhagen climate conference. Both nations nurse grievances. The US continues to sell arms to Taiwan whilst China does not support tough sanctions against Iran. Google informed the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, of their decision in advance. Mrs Clinton is due to deliver a speech on internet freedom next week. Washington will present Beijing with a formal complaint in the coming days. The Chinese authorities have sought to downplay the significance of the incident, presenting it as a purely commercial dispute. A spokesman for the ministry of commerce, Yao Jian said: "Foreign companies including Google should all follow international standards and respect local law and regulations."
Since the announcement "Tiananmen Square" has risen to the top of Google.cn's list of "most searched" terms as Chinese users try to take advantage of the deregulation. However the search engine still carries a message that results are being censored. Some people have laid flowers outside the Google's offices in Beijing in a gesture of support. But many Chinese have been angered by Google's accusations. When the state sponsored newspaper Global Times asked the question, "Should Beijing submit to Google's demands?" most respondents supported the government. Anti-Google (and anti-Western) comments have been left on the message boards of the rival Chinese search engine Baidu. Many suggested that the Google's decision was really made for commercial reasons. Their statement was a public relations exercise, designed to enhance their brand at China's expense.
It is true that the US company's share of the Chinese market is only 30 per cent, compared to Baidu's 60 per cent. But abandoning 300 million internet users in the world's fastest growing market would appear to make little commercial sense. Google's share price fell 0.57 per cent on the news, Baidu's rose 13 per cent. But Google's official explanation is equally puzzling. Withdrawing from China will not protect gmail users from cyber attacks. What, then, is the real reason?
It has been rumoured that the decision to accept Chinese state censorship caused divisions within the company at a high level. In September, the man who oversaw Google's entry into China, global vice-president Kai-Fu Lee resigned. Perhaps, the balance of opinion on the board shifted against the Chinese venture. The relatively small market share may have been an influential factor and the cyber attacks could have been a useful pretext, but perhaps Google really did have a change of heart.