Google, China and the facts of life

Google’s motto is “don’t be evil.” Some assert that such sentiment — common sense for most human beings — is irrelevant for a corporate entity dedicated to the pursuit of profit. Yet Google is no jordinary company. It provides the infrastructure through which a significant portion of the world’s population communicates each day. Google’s applications — its search engine and other tools — structure the perceptions of billions of people. Few companies, if any, have exercised this kind of power.

This has provoked clashes with governments that believe they are the rightful holders of such influence and that Google is a challenge to their authority and legitimacy. Authoritarian governments are the most frequently offended, but even democracies have battled Google over the scope of its operations and their right to regulate them. Information may want to be free, but governments often think otherwise.

Google’s recent clash with the government of China was just a matter of time. Google had been operating in China since 2006, when it launched the Chinese-language version of its Web site, Google.cn. Users quickly noted that searches via that engine did not provide all of the results available elsewhere. Google officials replied that all companies must respect the laws of the countries in which they operate and asserted that notifying users that results were truncated would satisfy their company motto. Good citizenship was certainly one of Google’s motives, but so too was the opportunity to gain position in the world’s largest and fastest growing Internet market.

The bargain grew increasingly difficult to swallow as Chinese authorities imposed greater restrictions on Internet operations — including completely blocking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube — and homegrown companies bested Google in the Chinese market. The final straw came last year when Google discovered that it, along with other companies, had been the target of “a highly sophisticated and targeted attack” by hackers seeking to gain access to human-rights activists’ Gmail accounts.

Fears that the firm’s proprietary information was under threat, as well as the government’s increasing restrictions, prompted Google executives to announce that they were reconsidering their business in China, and were preparing to suspend Web censorship and possibly even shut down Google.cn. (Reports that Google had decided to end operations in China were premature.)

Tensions were ratcheted up last week when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered a speech on Internet censorship that identified China, along with several other governments, as chief offenders. She urged other companies to resist “a new information curtain” and demanded that Beijing investigate Google’s complaints about censorship and hacking. China responded by saying that it needed no lessons from other countries on how to manage the Internet, and that Ms. Clinton’s speech showed a lack of respect.

The speech signaled an escalation in the United States’ approach to these issues, and could portend new problems in the U.S.-China relationship. Originally, Washington and Beijing treated this as a commercial dispute. But Ms. Clinton’s remarks reframed the issue as one that impacts fundamental freedoms. The U.S. State Department has said that it is working in 40 countries to develop ways to circumvent Internet restrictions, and the Congress appropriated $15 million in 2008 to aid such efforts.

China, like all governments, has the right to demand that companies operating on its territory respect its laws. Those businesses must then decide if the pursuit of profit justifies obedience to regulations that some believe are wrong or “evil.” Customers, clients and consumers can shape thinking in the executive boardroom by making their opinions known.

Skeptics insist that Google’s outrage is prompted less by the attacks against it than by the realization that it was losing the battle for Chinese market share. In this context, taking the moral high ground makes both ethical and commercial sense. It is naive to think, though, that any company would ignore fundamental business considerations when making such decisions.

The issue of Google’s complicity in Chinese attempts to restrict the flow of information within China is separate from that of the attacks on Google (and other companies) and what appears to be cyber-warfare against China’s enemies — real or imagined. Information is the backbone of a modern society.

It is assumed that governments employ cyber-specialists who prepare defenses for use in the event of conflict — and most do. Every day, government Web sites around the world are probed and attacked by hackers. It is hard to tell who is responsible, although some researchers believe the Google attacks bear a distinct signature that indicates Chinese hackers. That does not mean that they are government-sponsored, nor would any capable hacker make his or her origin clear. But if the Internet is a fact of life, then so too is the prospect of cyber-espionage and cyber-warfare.