Google Losing the Message

Google China Sign

With all the hubbub about Google pulling out of China (and especially now that the rumors have become official), almost everyone has formed an opinion. Google’s foray into politics has been received badly in China, even as their retreat from the country is being called heroic by many abroad. But the conversation has been focused on the issue of censorship, largely because Google itself defined things in those terms early on.

Still, I can’t help wondering if the world hasn’t missed the point here. Censorship, after all, will go on with or without Google’s consent. And since most American countries don’t sell things in danger of being censored, I find it hard to believe Google’s pullout is really going to lead to some mass exodus. What I do wonder is why everyone stopped caring about the fact that Google was hacked.

Probably that story was lost around the same time they announced the hackers came from the Lanxiang Vocational training school and the entire Chinese internet, as one, snorted with derisive laughter. Michael Anti, the former New York Times writer, called it “the biggest joke” he’d heard “all year” on his Twitter account. But the fact remains, Google was the victim of a highly sophisticated attack into, among other things, the email accounts of Chinese dissidents.

This is not to say that I support Google’s pulling out of China — I don’t. But it does concern me that this part of the story somehow disappeared, when — to me — it’s by far the most significant piece of the puzzle. One cannot ask a company whose success relies partially on its ability to keep private things private not to be angered by what certainly appears to be a government-run or at least government-motivated attack that violates that privacy. Of course, who exactly was behind the attacks is still up for grabs, and at this point, probably always will be. Still, a threat research VP at antivirus company McAfee said, “We have never ever, outside of the defense industry, seen commercial industrial companies come under that level of sophisticated attack.” It’s probably safe to say this wasn’t some netizens acting entirely on their own out of patriotic love of country.

Anyway, the point here is to poll all of you: what’s really important in this whole Google fiasco?

[polldaddy poll=2937663]



28 Comments

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  1. xian

    There are 3 main theories to Google’s actions, and I think they’re all wrong.

    1) states that Google is taking a moral stand against censorship, which is doubtful because Google is a business and money ultimately comes first.

    2) states that Google is using the censorship issue as a cover to “retreat” from the market due to overwhelming competition. This is also dubious, because Google has grown in market share since its entry, and even if it hasn’t, some share is always better than 0%.

    3) states that Google is leaving because they are experiencing theft of their technologies. This makes no sense since industrial espionage of this type can be carried out by anyone against any of Google’s servers around the globe. Meaning that even if Chinese hackers are stealing Google’s secrets, leaving China wouldn’t really make a difference.

    I am not a conspiracy theorist, but for once, I believe that the US or Chinese government may actually have something to do with this case.

    PS: Custer looks funny in that photo :)

    • anon

      The point is, Google agreed to go against many of their own standards to be allowed into China on good terms with the government. The government responds to the company by hacking into the company (and 21 others) to gain intellectual property and hack into users email accounts.

      Google is responds by saying “Why do we play by your rules if you are stealing from us?” and went ahead and “left” China for HK.

      They know they can’t leave because of the money, but can’t let somebody steal their stuff and be under their rule. Probably the best solution they could find after talks broke down.

      • anon,

        So what about all the other countries that hack Google, attempt to steal intellectual property, try to hack e-mail accounts? Google is under their rule too, isn’t it? Guys, you don’t seriously think China is the only country where hacking, IP theft, etc. happens, do you?

        I’m willing to entertain Google using human rights as a cover for something else that they’ve “had enough of” but I still think doing so is dishonest and disappointing. It exploits and thus cheapens human rights.

        • qwerty

          “So what about all the other countries that hack Google, attempt to steal intellectual property, try to hack e-mail accounts? Google is under their rule too, isn’t it? Guys, you don’t seriously think China is the only country where hacking, IP theft, etc. happens, do you?”

          1) IP theft on a pretty grand scale in China, I think we could all agree. Does that make it worse? Well, everyone has their own opinion on this.

          2) Because it happens in other countries too, does that means it’s right? I don’t think so. Are you implying Google should leave the other countries where that happens too? The point is there is a combination of factors in China that don’t seem to have occurred in others. You can’t separate them out as individuals, you have to consider them all together.

          3) Why is it dishonest and disappointing? I would argue that by drawing attention to the censorship that is going on rather than just kowtowing to the government, they have drawn far more attention to this issue than it’s attracted in the past. Certainly amongst my Chinese friends this issue is being much more widely discussed. Is this a bad thing? How is it exploiting human rights? The more people think of it, the more they are able to form an opinion.

          • qwerty,

            1) My point was that IP theft was not the Chinese government’s “response” to Google trying to be on good terms with them. That sentence was crafted to evoke a false emotion, a logical fallacy. One did not happen after the other. IP theft or the risk of it was present whether Google was in China or was on good terms with the government or not.

            2) Nowhere do I say that something is “right” just because it happens in other countries. anon said: “but can’t let somebody steal their stuff and be under their rule.” Google allows itself to be under the rule of many places where their stuff is stolen. My point is to say to anon, “that’s not it, it’s not about being under someone’s rule only to get your stuff stolen”. If there’s anything definitive, it lies in Drummond’s responses to Fallows. anon’s take is inaccurate.

            3) It’s dishonest and disappointing because you’re really doing something for yourself but saying it’s for others. It’s like me eating your steak but telling you its for your own good so you don’t get fat. It’s dishonest because I’m conflating my reason with a reason that is meant to make you think its for you. It’s disappointing because I don’t want Google to do that. I like Google. I’d rather they not engage in such patronizing rhetoric.

            If Google doesn’t want to be associated with what they feel is China’s oppressive system of censorship, by all means, don’t be associated with it. But don’t tell the Chinese that it’s for their own good. The Chinese can decide for themselves how your actions will be good or bad for them.

            To be fair, it’s less Google doing this and more the surrounding punditry, but Google is lapping up the association with human rights. Remember, Google’s move didn’t increase human rights for the Chinese. It’s good that Google doesn’t want to participate in self-censorship, but it’s bad for the Chinese that they’ve lost and risk losing much of the value Google had brought to their lives pragmatically.

  2. Google management are out to prove their stupidity

    Google’s decision to pull out of China (and again…they were not pushed out) CANNOT have anything to do with Hackers. Hackers will attack Google whether Google operates in China or not, and a presence in China does not make them weaker against Hacker intrusion. This is a cover-story, as well as the censorship issue itself. I believe the real issue has something to do with the change of Google-China’s CEO several months ago. But that is just speculation.

    Google does not have the moral authority. They went into a market agreeing to self-censor. That is the point when they lost their moral authority. See Gizmodo editorial (http://gizmodo.com/5495491/google-exiting-china-sucks-just-as-much-as-censorship-does). So now saying they pull out because of censorship is ridiculous.

    There was no negotiation between China and Google. Google was not kicked out and China did not force it to do anything other than follow its own laws. Google decided that they will, at a future date (which I guess is today) not operate under Chinese law. Whether you agree with that law or not is another topic. I do not agree with that law. But I would not move my company into China, provide services and support to Chinese customers, and then five years later suddenly decide that I did not care to stay in the market and provide support (while I was making profit anyway) See China Economic Review ( http://www.chinaeconomicreview.com/today-in-china/2010_03_19/Negotiating_lessons_we_can_learn_from_Google.html ) for a better synopsis of this.

    Some people may say that Google’s decision…and any company’s decision…to move to China is morally wrong. Fine. Question: Where can we breath air not contaminated by polluting fumes from burnt petroleum extracted from the land of despotic regimes (and Texans)? Where can I go where I can be, truly moral?

    Here’s an analogy. Haier decides to pull out of American market because they don’t want to pay corporate taxes to America, after American actions in Iraq caused the death of 600,000 people. Tell me… is this an appropriate moral reaction? Would we applaud this, even if it meant the loss of jobs in America? To complete this analogy, The China Daily would then report that Haier and the US Government are having a dispute and “negotiating” over Haier’s decision not to pay taxes. Many pundits in China say that US is being “arrogant” for insisting that Haier pay taxes and it is the US which is kicking Haier out.

    Some of you are saying “Paying taxes is not intrinsically morally wrong, but censorship is.” Tell that to the Tea-Party-ers (or whatever they call themselves). On the Chinese “Hierarchy of Needs”, safety (and stability ) are at the top. (http://www.chinatranslated.com/?p=815 … just a Taxi cab conversation…but I agree)

    Censoring is more important to the Chinese government…and most of its people … than taxes. Why? Translating this into a “progressive” American context, Chinese people don’t want 1.3B of their countrymen to get their news from Fox News. I don’t share their opinion. But I’m not Chinese.

    Although Google’s pull-out will hurt its customers, Google’s decision will not materially help Chinese people and will not contribute to ending Chinese censorship. If anything, it will make censorship easier for the government. At least, if Google.cn stayed, there would always be a reminder to Chinese people that there is a broader internet on the other side of the GFWC.

    Some may think I’m a “China Apologist”. If that’s what you think, then go to hell. I’m passionate about this because to be truthful about our moral reality is the only way we can pursue righteousness in this world.

    • “Google does not have the moral authority. They went into a market agreeing to self-censor. That is the point when they lost their moral authority. See Gizmodo editorial. So now saying they pull out because of censorship is ridiculous.”

      Does that mean they can’t change their mind if they think they were in the past, but now see a new way forward? I’d like to think there is always time to change if you think you’ve made a mistake…

      But then, I think it is a combination of the hacking and censorship that drove them out. From all I’ve read, it seemed like Sergey Brin was the driving force between the pullout – and based on his passion as much as logic, whereas the entry into the Chinese market was driven by more business minded people such as Eric Schmidt. Of course we have to realise there is more than one person running this company, which might explain why the company sometimes seems to be running in two different directions.

      Given the choice, I’d have voted for a both option, but I wouldn’t like to see Google leave either way. I think by having the presence in China that they did, the government would have looked far more kindly on their international properties (in terms of blocking them), but now that they are going ahead with the move to Hong Kong (part of China in one sense, but really not in another), I’m hopeful at best that access to any Google service will last for long. Glad I renewed my VPN service recently.

      Charles, I’m really happy to see you drawing focus back to the hacking issue – the quote from the McAfee VP is very revealing. Good Article.

      • “Does that mean they can’t change their mind if they think they were in the past, but now see a new way forward? I’d like to think there is always time to change if you think you’ve made a mistake…”

        Agreed. But… To right a wrong like this… a “wrong” which is very grey in itself… requires actions designed to have positive consequence. I do not see positive consequence in Google’s actions for the Chinese people.

  3. Dylz

    I think the hacking story has been glossed over because there just aren’t independently verifiable facts to create a narrative that the news can tell the public. While it’s easy to check if google products are being blocked in China, with the hacking it’s one government’s words against the other. The US government seems loathe to press the issue without a truly smoking gun in their hands, so news outlets would just end up reporting the same original facts over and over.

  4. On a pretty basic level, it’s pretty sad that the world’s most populous country now has essentially has a trade embargo with the most popular and powerful Internet giant in the world. It makes both parties look terrible.

  5. Comrades!

    As of this time,

    I cannot access google.cn am directed to com.hk

    HARMONIZED!!

    你呢????

  6. It´s obvious Google is not leaving for the hackers issue. They are leaving because they cannot do business in China, and one of the reasons is censorship (Youtube, Google Docs, Picassa, Blogspot…). I think with the hackers story they got pissed off and decided it was enough…

    Anyways, I cannot see how this movement is gonna be profitable for the company…

    • Josh

      I think this is a good point which a lot of people haven’t really taken note of. Google, after all, isn’t simply a search engine.

      Many people have said (erroneously, I might add) that Google is leaving because of failure in the marketplace, as if 36 percent market share qualifies as failure (lawl.)

      Possibly more important to note is that Google, unlike Baidu, is a company that spans over many products and services and some of their services, no, several of their most popular ones are blocked in China.

      Let’s remember also that Google has come under consistent criticism from the Chinese government despite its decision to censor itself. Remember last year on Chinasmack, right before the spring festival when that guy was talking about Google allowing pictures of naked women was making one of his college buddies very “absent minded”?

      This looks to be very clearly like more of a “last straw” kind of thing, set off by the hacking.

  7. DJ

    I am just glad that something happened, finally. Frankly, I am so tired of this story going on and on. It would have been so much better if Google just pulled out a month ago already. Didn’t any of their highly paid propaganda PR consultants tell Google bosses that they stretched it out too long?

  8. Sometimes, when two people just can’t get on the best thing is a divorce ; yes, it’s upsetting for the kids but it allows the two people to concentrate on their lives rather than arguing.
    The Chinese government and Google were never very happy in bed together; they never had a great time together; now it’s time as sensible adults to go their separate ways.

  9. TO put it simple, as people says”along the direction of the money, you can find 90% of the truch.”
    Google after all is an international corporation, and the money-the maximization of profit is its ultimately interest.

  10. lolz

    Yeah, I was more interested in the hacking angle as well. From a business point of view this is a lot more damaging than the issue of censorship, which companies already know when they go into China.

    I think the story kinda died partly because of the NYT’s ridiculous accusation that the Lanxiang Vocational School is one of the main hacking force to carry out this attack. At the same time, I think google doesn’t want to further acknowledge that their security is weak. After all, one of google’s key strategic initiatives is software as service/cloud computing. Telling the world that you have been hacked is bad for business even if the hacker is the Chinese government. With google’s PR team sealing their lips I don’t think anyone will get much more info on this.

  11. On still another level, Google’s actions prove they are not content, but only a search engine. All they can do is move and explain their actions, but you don’t see them in anyway trying to drum up support or force change through publishing actions. They have blog posts that explain but they are not activist here, nor are they leading a thought charge against the Chinese.

  12. asdf

    I pick OTHER. Google made a mess of the whole situation. A first big stumble by a global behemoth that might have grown to big to run nimbly. I think Google has jumped the shark.

    Google’s move to HK is a big cop out. They say they’re leaving china, but wait, NOT REALLY. Of course, China can still at any time block .hk. Google might be getting too big to manage. Many initial google millionnaires, some of their smartest and most inspired minds, have already left for other adventures, and they have many more mediocre people now. This this really just a symptom of a large company experience maturing pains and stumbling.

    One should not forget, that the only thing that keeps Google going is revenue from ads/adwords. Without that business, they would be insolvent – meaning their other businesses are not big successes or moneymakers. This PR incident (or fiasco) could be indicative of the mediocrity of their operations and businesses in general, beyond adwords.

  13. JQ

    The censorship angle and the hacking angle are inseparable.

    In the words of David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer, “There were political aspects to these hacking attacks that were quite unusual…. It seemed to us that this was all part of an overall system bent on suppressing expression, whether it was by controlling internet search results or trying to surveil activists. It is all part of the same repressive program.”

    • asdf

      Where’s the meat? It’s been months, and still no shred of solid indicting proof. It’s not out of the question that someone might have wanted to frame China. Hint hint, CI-cough-A.

      If you’re going to give up the largest internet market, shouldn’t you present some foolproof evidence to back up your claims? Google’s credibility takes a blow here.

      • qwerty

        1) What difference does it make about the size of the market? Maybe in terms of pure numbers the market in China is bigger than others, but in terms of revenue for Google, not even close.

        2) Normally with security flaws, they aren’t released to the general public, or at least not until they are patched. It’d be kinda dumb if they just told everyone what the flaw was, wouldn’t it? Besides, you’ll notice Google has shared the information with a variety of security experts, such as the McAfee VP quoted in the article… Or you think they are all just on Google’ payroll?

        3) No offense, but suggesting the CIA is behind it’s kinda coming out of left field. What motivation would they have? The words conspiracy theorist come to mind…

        • asdf

          1) Umm… last I checked, google was still a public company with shareholder owners. They might not be profitable now in CHina, but you’d better be able to explain well how abandoning the largest market will actually help google.

          2) So you’re saying they still haven’t fixed the flaws? That’s a bigger indictment. At the end of the day, I’m sure they have fixed the flaws. Now they need to prove to the world that they weren’t just talking smack. I’m a big fan of many google products, they like said, their credibility takes a hit in my view until they show the proof.

          3) I’m not sure if you’re an american, but you need to read up on all the crap the CIA and other covert organizations do. And the stuff that is out there is only the tip of the iceberg of their covert operations. In many US government and private spheres, china is the de facto threat of the future, and many agencies are overtly and COVERTLY operating to limit any threats, real or perceived. If you know what the CIA has done in the past, it certainly wouldn’t be out of the question that some organization like the CIA, NED, NSA, NRO, etc is up to no good in framing China in this incident. Of course, with mainstream western media, you never know all the bad stuff that is done, even if the info is out there, cause you now, American’s can’t be evil…

  14. Chinaman

    Google’s just using us Chinese for cheap PR. Way to go Brin!

  15. Jones

    Well, seeing as how the hacking was supposedly trying to gain access to information and accounts of dissidents…it’s still kind of on topic.

  16. unbiased

    What Google says in public and what is really said in the boardroom probably differ. Google’s global marketing strategy just isn’t working in China – facebook is blocked. A huge portion of their social networking strategy is missing. Their “global netizen” plans are stymied at every turn in China because China needs to maintain stability and harmony at the expense of freedom of speech. I’ve seen freedom of speech at work in the USA – politicians in Los Angeles inciting the mobs to riot and then hiding once the floodgates opened leaving the police and the national guard to clean up their doggy poo. Free speech comes with responsibility – but the free speech advocates are polarized at the free speech end of the spectrum with nominal deference to responsibility.

    Hacking happens – regardless of state sponsored or commercial or industrial espionage. Burglaries happen. If you run a hotel – you are nominally expected to maintain a modicum of security.

    Sounds more like Google’s whining and taking their game ball home.

Continuing the Discussion