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By 2 February 2010 | Categories: feature articles

     
 
 

Human rights

Although this attack led to intellectual property being stolen, Google claims the hackers had their sights set on the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. Two Gmail accounts were hacked, but without the content of their emails being accessed.

The final straw

David Drummond, Google’s corporate development and chief legal officer, said: “These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered – combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web – have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China.” As a first step Google said that they will no longer censor search results in China, a move which they admit might result in the discontinuation of the Google.cn service and the closing down of their China offices.

More than humanitarian?

Despite Google’s humanitarian rhetoric, some analysts believe that Google’s reaction to the attacks involves more than just humanitarian concern. With about a 30% share of China’s $1 billion search market (Chinese rival Baidu holds most of the rest), they feel Google would rather abandon China than risk having extremely important intellectual property stolen.

Google’s “Don’t be evil” slogan has also been under the spotlight since entering the Chinese market four years ago. From the start they were required by the Chinese government to sensor info for example regarding the Tiananmen Square protests and the persecuted Falun Gong movement. The move to stop censorship of Chinese search results should help to restore public confidence and internal cohesion, since neither Baidu nor Microsoft is prepared to do the same.

Governments get involved

In the interim, Google’s public response to the attacks left the door open for the issue to be politicised. US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton asked Beijing to investigate the incident and release their findings, while also criticising them on their internet censorship policies.
Beijing hit back accusing the US of “groundless accusations against China” and said that it was harmful to China-US relations.

And now?

When going to print Beijing and Washington were still at it, while Google was still censoring search results in China, stating that it will cease to do so in “a reasonably short time”. They added that they wished to remain in China. Beijing will not be too pleased with Google’s behaviour, but having a massive company like Google withdrawing from the country can send all the wrong messages to both current and potential western business partners.

“Don’t do evil” Google on the other hand will face a lot of criticism if they don’t stick to their “no censorship” guns and try and appease Beijing.

How this row will conclude should tell us a lot, about both China’s approach to the next decade, and how big Google’s humanitarian concern really was.

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