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 Google.cn [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 Google.cn.”
“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.
Instead, says Mr. Sullivan, Google engineers might turn to “trying to help the Chinese get to Google” on servers outside the country, by punching a hole through the “Great Firewall” that blocks content unacceptable to Beijing.
Google CEO Eric Schmidt was one of several top American IT executives who met United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week as she draws up plans to help citizens abroad get uncensored access to the Internet. She is due to unveil a technological policy initiative on Internet freedom next week.
“Our policies on Internet freedom in part are a response to the fact that there are countries around the world that systematically stifle their citizens’ access to information,” Clinton aide Alec Ross told Reuters on Tuesday.
Cordoning off cyberspace
This could pit the US government and US companies directly against China, take the battle to new heights, and transform the nature of the Internet.
If China went beyond simply censoring search-engine results to block Google’s ability to search and index resources on the Chinese Web, “we would be entering a completely new era for the Internet,” says Rafal Rohozinski, a researcher with SecDev, a cyber-investigative consultancy based in Ottawa, Canada.
Google and other search engines can currently index the whole of cyberspace. Should China or any other government establish “sovereign space in cyberspace, where companies cannot play except by their rules … the paradigm of the Internet begins to shift quite fundamentally,” Mr. Rohozinski argues.
The official news agency Xinhua quoted a Chinese official as saying that authorities were "seeking more information on Google's statement that it could quit China."
China’s leaders use their tight control over information as a key tool with which to shore up their power. They see the Internet as a potentially dangerous conduit of information that “Western subversive forces” use to foment dissatisfaction in restive parts of the country such as Tibet and Xinjiang, says Wenran Jiang, a China expert at the University of Alberta in Canada.
Since ethnic riots in the Xinjiang capital, Urumuqi, killed more than 200 people last June, Internet access has been all but cut off in the region. Social-networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have been blocked throughout the country.
While Beijing accepted international trade rules to join the World Trade Organization and a globalized economy, it will not adopt international standards on information freedom any time soon, predicts Professor Jiang.
“In the long run, they cannot control information, and they will have to find ways to accommodate dissident views,” Jiang says. “But at the moment, they have no other way but censorship."