Google: A bull in China's shop

As promised, Google uncensored its Chinese search engine, and now Beijing is wreaking revenge.

So Google finally made good on its promise to uncensor its Chinese search engine and/or leave the Chinese market. And China is now making good on its promise to make Google very sorry for ever bringing it up.

Gotta say "the G" was pretty clever about it. Redirecting Google.cn to Google.com.hk seems like a smart way to stay in China while not staying in China. And Google's "Mainland China service availability report" -- which displays which Google services Beijing is mucking with on any particular day -- is sheer brilliance.

(I understand negotiations between the two parties got pretty heated near the end -- at least, according to this video.)

Symbolically, Google's public repudiation of China is huge. The company is walking away from potentially millions of dollars in ad revenue.

In practical terms, though, it doesn't do much. China is still blocking search results, and it's retaliating by forcing the country's two largest telecoms, China Unicom and China Mobile, to pull their deals with Google over search engines and Android phone manufacturing. Chinese Web portals are now backing out of their agreements with Google -- no doubt with some strong "encouragement" from Beijing.

This morning, Google's U.S. corporate site was hacked and redirected to the Chinese version, according to a report in the U.K.'s Guardian. No clue whether this was China's doing or just somebody's idea of a joke (I'm guessing the latter).

I'm wracking my brain trying to come up with another example of a major U.S. corporation saying "bite me" to a major national power because it didn't like that government's repressive policies. If the government is pro capitalism, U.S. companies generally do not appear to care how they treat their citizens. Am I wrong about this?

Of course, it's not clear that Google really cares either -- because this all came about after Google got cyberpunk'd by hackers inside China. To my admittedly warped mind, it still smacks more of revenge than anything principled.

James Fallows of the Atlantic Wire had an interesting conversation with Google chief legal beagle David Drummond, in which he states:

The initial premise, that it all started from a hacking episode, is not quite right. We did have a hacking incident. Most hacking incidents that you see are freelancers -- maybe government sponsored, maybe not. ... This attack, which was from China, was different. It was almost singularly focused on getting into Gmail accounts specifically of human rights activists, inside China or outside....There were political aspects to these hacking attacks that were quite unusual.

That was distasteful to us. 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, from our point of view. We felt that we were being part of that.

Pure speculation here: I'm guessing that ever since Google decided to enter the Chinese market, there's been a roiling internal debate among Sergey, Larry, and Eric about how to deal with China's repressive policies, and that the hacking incident flipped one or more of them over to the anti-China side. If I had to handicap it, I'd say Sergey was in the "screw China" camp, Eric was in the "let's just keep our heads down and make millions" crew, and Larry was the swing vote. Just my own mental fantasy playing out here. (If have got inside info to the contrary, please share.)

This drama is only just beginning to unfold. I don't see China backing down, ever. I don't see any other U.S. Internet giants following Google's lead, or Uncle Sam doing anything more than issuing vague statements of support for Internet freedom. The question is whether Google will stay the course or will its resolve eventually melt as it loses its still-tiny foothold in the world's largest market.

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Tags GoogleChinachina mobileChina UnicomAtlantic Wire

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Robert X. Cringely

InfoWorld
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