For as long as western companies have been doing business in China–under Chinese laws–there’s been a fundamental question that’s been a subject of immense controversy: Are they helping to make China more free, or are they helping the Chinese government prevent more freedom?
Until now, Google has been one of a number of U.S. Web companies that has willingly provided a censored version of its services in China as a prerequisite of doing business there. It’s maintained that providing the Chinese people with access to some information is better than denying them access to Google entirely, and its Chinese search engine has carried a disclaimer that some links are suppressed.
But now that’s changing. In a fascinating blog post, Google has disclosed that it discovered a sophisticated hacker attack on its systems in mid-December. Its investigation revealed that the target was the accounts of Chinese human rights activists, and that the attack encompassed other large companies. It further found that the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists had been breached through such means as malware installed on their computers.
The blog post never explicitly says that the Chinese government is behind the attacks, but Google’s reaction makes clear what its conclusions are:
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. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, 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. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.
I’ve wrestled with the question of the western media’s involvement in China myself for years. Before I started Technologizer, I was the editor of PC World, a publication that not only has a Chinese edition, but publishes it as a joint venture with the government, with an on-the-premises government official in charge of monitoring its content. I thought that the good of the arrangement outweighed the bad, since the personal technology that PC World covers is playing such a significant role in improving the lives of the Chinese people.
But I’m very proud of the fact that Automattic, the creators of WordPress and the company that hosts Techologizer, has refused to censor WordPress.com blogs in China–which, as of my last visit to China in 2008, meant that the millions of WordPress.com blogs were all blocked by the Great Firewall of China. Not every blogging platform has taken such a firm stance in favor of freedom of speech. And oddly enough, I ran into multiple folks in Beijing who were smart enough to figure out how to bypass the government’s censorship and read Technologizer and other blocked western sites.
I remain positive that the west needs to engage China rather than cut it off; I’m not in favor of blanket boycotts. But I admire Google enormously for the actions it’s announcing today. Let’s see how its western competitors–some of who may also have been among those attacked–respond.