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Google vs. China: Google draws line at censorship in prize market

Google challenged China censorship rules Tuesday – saying it would stop filtering its search engine results or leave the country – after it uncovered a vicious cyberattack on human rights activists.

By Staff Writer / January 13, 2010

A Chinese Google user presents flowers to the Google China headquarters in Beijing on Wednesday.

Vincent Thian/AP



Google’s dramatic threat to close its business in China unless the authorities allow it to provide uncensored search results throws into stark relief the limits to globalization.

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The dream of a unified World Wide Web flattening the Earth into a single cyberspace has been shattered by some governments' determination to control the information their citizens see. And Google’s new refusal to submit to such controls in China illustrates how its global business model could founder in an international clash of values.

“Google is a powerful example of a company struggling to navigate the intersection between the Internet, globalization, and geopolitics,” says John Palfrey, a law professor at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for the Internet and Society.

The search engine and e-mail behemoth said Tuesday it had uncovered “a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China” aimed at accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.

In the light of the attack, “we have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on [the company’s Chinese website],” Google’s chief legal officer, David Drummond, said in a statement. “We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down”

“The idea that Google would be allowed to run an uncensored search engine would be inconsistent with everything the Chinese government has done and every single statement it has made over the past year” about the need for controls on the Internet, says Rebecca MacKinnon, an expert on new media in China who was based until recently in Hong Kong.

“The Internet in China is a police state just like China is a police state,” she adds. “Google’s presence helped to legitimize and normalize censorship, and to their credit they seem to be re-thinking this.”

‘Don’t be evil’

When it launched its Chinese arm in 2006, Google agreed to abide by Chinese law on the grounds that its services did more good than harm. But the company’s founders never seemed comfortable with the arrangement, which appeared to undermine their motto, “Don’t be evil.”

The cyberattacks on their software, which Google implied came from official Chinese sources, “was the last straw,” says Danny Sullivan, who runs Search Engine Land, a website devoted to reporting on search-engine companies, based in California. “They got incredibly frustrated with China and got fed up,” he suggests.

Google’s closure threat highlights how “we are going to have a Balkanized network with different rules in different places,” says Professor Palfrey. An ongoing study of 70 countries shows “a clear trend toward more Internet censorship and more controls at national borders,” he says.

“Companies like Google are going to have to deal with that, but Google is saying there is a limit,” Palfrey adds. “It is a very important concept that there may be such a limit.”

Damage to future earnings?

Though Google said Tuesday its business in China is “immaterial” to its estimated $22 billion annual revenues, turning its back on the world’s biggest Internet market could seriously compromise the company’s future earnings.