Google Puts Its Foot Down With China

The discovery of a series of cyberattacks from China targeting Google and other companies has prompted the Internet giant to threaten that it may pull out of the country.

The “highly sophisticated and targeted attack” on Google’s corporate infrastructure resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google, David Drummond, senior vice president of corporate development and chief legal officer for Google, wrote Tuesday on the company blog.

“At least 10 other large companies from a wide range of businesses — including the Internet, finance, technology, media and chemical sectors — have been similarly targeted,” Drummond added.

Google is currently in the process of notifying those companies and is working with the relevant U.S. authorities as well, he said.

Gmail Surveillance

What is at least as disturbing is that the apparent goal of the attacks was to access the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists, Drummond wrote.

It appears so far that only two Gmail accounts were in fact compromised, and no email content was included. Nevertheless, Google’s investigation has found that “the accounts of dozens of U.S.-, China- and Europe-based Gmail users who are advocates of human rights in China appear to have been routinely accessed by third parties,” he explained.

It was not through any security breach at Google that the accounts were accessed, he stressed, “but most likely via phishing scams or malware placed on the users’ computers.”

In any case, Google has already made “infrastructure and architectural improvements that enhance security for Google and for our users,” Drummond wrote, adding that users should also be sure to take measures such as deploying reputable antivirus and antispyware programs, installing patches for their operating systems, and updating their Web browsers.

‘We Are No Longer Willing” to Censor

Google officials did not respond by press time to the E-Commerce Times’ requests for additional details about the attacks and the companies involved. The net result of the discovery, however, is that Google is now reconsidering its presence in China, where its branch has been operating since 2006.

“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,” Drummond wrote.

“We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all,” he added. “We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down, and potentially our offices in China.”

The company’s public announcement of the decision was motivated “not just because of the security and human rights implications of what we have unearthed, but also because this information goes to the heart of a much bigger global debate about freedom of speech,” Drummond noted.

Yahoo and Shi Tao

Google, Yahoo and other Internet companies have had to walk a fine line when operating in China, attempting to balance government concerns with the free speech of citizens.

Several cases have highlighted the issue, including that of Shi Tao, a Chinese journalist and writer who was sentenced in 2005 to 10 years’ imprisonment after Yahoo China provided his personal details to the Chinese government.

As a result, Google and others have been widely criticized for their acquiescence to China’s censorship efforts. Elliot Schrage, Google’s vice president for global communications and public affairs, provided testimony explaining the company’s position at a 2006 hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on International Relations.

‘Extraordinary and Brave’

Now, the company’s decisive statement suggests it is taking a harder stance.

“Google has faced criticism for a long time” for its role in censorship efforts, so the new approach sends a “very strong message that it’s thinking carefully about its global impact,” Rebecca Wettemann, vice president of research at Nucleus Research, told the E-Commerce Times.

Human rights advocates, not surprisingly, are elated.

“From where we stand, this is an extraordinary and brave move on Google’s part,” Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, told the E-Commerce Times.

“This is a remarkable turnaround not only to be commended, but we’d like to see other companies and indeed governments take a similar stand,” she added.

‘The Right Approach’

“They’re definitely taking the right approach,” said Theresa Harris, executive director of the World Organization for Human Rights USA.

In doing so, Google has taken a long-term view, putting its principles ahead of short-term profits, Harris added. In addition to being “admirable,” that approach will create more customer loyalty in the long run, she predicted.

Had Google continued operating in China despite its awareness of the cyberattacks, on the other hand, it would have put itself at risk of being involved in another Shi Tao case, Harris told the E-Commerce Times.

Who Blinks First?

Where things go from here, however, is far from clear.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton issued a statement on Tuesday, noting that Google’s allegations “raise very serious concerns and questions.”

Clinton said she would comment further “as the facts become clear.”

In the meantime, “the question is, what does Google do now?” Wettemann said. “You can’t just take your toys and go home.”

Indeed, “is the Chinese government going to blink, and let Google operate in an uncensored way, or will Google blink and go down in contemporary history books as being even more compliant than Yahoo has been?” Richardson asked.

If Google blinks, it “ends up looking even worse than Yahoo, which is pretty bad,” she noted. “I assume they don’t want to be in that position.”

For the Chinese government, however, the stakes are even higher, added Richardson.

“It has a deeply vested interest in restricting access to information and the ability for its citizens to speak freely,” she said. “This is a genie the Chinese government does not want out of the bottle.”

No Clear Win-Win

There is no clear path to a win-win resolution, Wettemann opined.

“Negotiation is going to have to be managed very carefully, because it’s setting a clear precedent,” she added.

“It all depends on how Google comports itself and makes decisions in the coming weeks,” Richardson agreed.

The best outcome for defenders of the right to free expression would be that Internet companies start to “behave as they should have been doing all along to defend people’s rights to speak freely,” she added.

Such an end may not seem likely, but “we have seen that the Chinese government, in the face of concerted international pressure,” will sometimes “give some ground,” Richardson said.

‘One Heck of a Fight’

Either way, it’s time Internet companies realize that whether they like it or not, they have a key role to play, Harris pointed out.

“Some companies just think of themselves as corporations,” she explained. “They don’t seem to have really grasped that being an Internet service provider puts you in the human rights business.”

However things go from here, “Google has picked one heck of a fight,” Richardson added. “I hope they stick to their guns.”

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