You would have to be living in a cave over the last few months not to see the dispute between Google and the Chinese government – one over censorship. On January 21, Google chief executive Eric Schmidt said they were “still censoring web search results in China but this would change in a reasonably short time from now.”
Those words accompanied accusations by Google of cyber-attacks on their servers that originated in China. And just when you thought that the topic could not possibly get more complex, these cyber-attacks attracted notice in the United States on the highest levels.
“No Such Agency”
For years, NSA, or the National Security Agency, was so secret that people joked that “NSA” stood for “No Such Agency.” But Google, the 500-pound Internet gorilla, actually sought help from NSA, according to a February 4th article in the Washington Post:
“Under an agreement that is still being finalized, the National Security Agency would help Google analyze a major corporate espionage attack that the firm said originated in China and targeted its computer networks, according to cybersecurity experts familiar with the matter. The objective is to better defend Google — and its users — from future attack.”
The U.S. Government Gets Involved
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton weighed in on the Google issue:
“We have been briefed by Google on these allegations, which raise very serious concerns and questions. We look to the Chinese government for an explanation.”
We now have the most secretive of all government agencies contributing to effort to thwart Cyber attacks and U.S. foreign policy getting in to the act.
So is Google Really a White Hat Company?
Let’s not start lauding Google as a good corporate citizen just yet. Sure, they have the right to pull out of China just like the Chinese believe that they have the right to censor what their netizens see (remember “Green Dam?”) If you take a closer look, you’ll see that Google badly trails the Chinese search engine, Baidu. Moreover, in China, that the cash cow of Google, Ad Words, accounts for only four percent of their total revenue.
Pulling out may be a good decision for free speech, but when lauding the company’s stance, let’s remember that they are giving up only four cents on the dollar, and looking at an increasingly protectionist government creating an environment in which it will be harder for Google to grow.
My cynical side tells me that Google is donning a global good corporate citizen hat at a time in which they are having some international troubles. As reported in the Wall Street Journal on February 25:
“Google Inc. said European antitrust authorities have opened a preliminary inquiry into complaints about its tactics made by three European Internet companies. The inquiry, disclosed late Tuesday, appears to focus largely on complaints that Google unfairly ranks the sites of the Internet competitors, in effect lowering their rank in search results that appear on Google sites.”
So with the E.U. pulling a Microsoft – they sure to seem to bring out the hammer when a large U.S.-based company gets big – and the nail is the company, it’s a great time to dress one’s self in the garb of a good international corporate citizen.
Is Google doing the “right thing?” Probably. But let’s not forget that they initially agreed to submit to censorship when they entered the Chinese market. It appears that the tipping point came when cyber attacks, originating in China, hacked into Google server, presumably attempting to access Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. Google had the “smoking gun” and/or excuse to threaten to stop censoring search results.
So before we go awarding to the Nobel Prize to Eric Schmidt, let’s look at the fact that a) Google has been censoring all along, and b) they stand to lose little when they pull out and get blocked by the Internet “Great Wall of China.”
Mark Story is the Director of New Media at the U.S. Securities and Exhange Commission and the COO of Intersection of Online and Offline, LLC. You can find him on Twitter – @mstory123.