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The Google v China face-off

Maggie Shiels | 08:55 UK time, Wednesday, 13 January 2010

So just who is going to blink first in this high stakes poker game?

The search giant says it may well pull out of China after discovering what it called a "highly sophisticated and targeted attack" on its corporate infrastructure.

And while that attack originated from China, Google did not actually accuse the government of orchestrating it. However you wonder what their suspicions are and their motivation given that cyber attacks are part of operating on the web.

Google's Beijing office

Now Google is saying it will have to re-evaluate how it does business in the country.

The California based company has conducted operations over the last four years by agreeing to censor results.

Google, like Yahoo and Microsoft and a myriad of companies have always said this is the price they have to pay for doing business in China.

And the reason why companies are willing to play by these rules is surely because of the prospect of accessing tens of millions of potential customers.

China's internet audience already has soared from 10 million to nearly 340 million in the past decade. Google's market share is around the 30+% while rival Baidu commands about 63%.

So what lies behind all of this?

Some security experts reckon that the attack must have been sizeable and worrying for Google to engage in this kind of brinkmanship.

"For Google to pull up stakes and basically pull out of China, the attack must have been large in scope and very penetrating," James Mulvenon an expert on Chinese cyberwarfare capabilities told the New York Times.

"This attack highlights the fact that cyberwarfare has basically gone to the next level."

Google's chief legal officer David Drummond said this attack, while unsuccessful, "goes to the heart of a much bigger global debate about freedom of speech".

Fine words, but people like George Simpson at the Consumer Watchdog believes the company should have adopted this stance way back in 2006 when it did a deal to launch in China.

"We commend the company, but they should never have agreed to censor results in the first place," he told the BBC.

Evgeny Morozov, an expert on the political effects of the internet and a Yahoo fellow at Georgetown University, questioned why Google had made the decision now after four years operating in the country.

"They knew pretty well what they were getting into. Now it seems they are playing the innocence card...It's like they thought they were dealing with the government of Switzerland and suddenly realised it was China," he said.

Mr Morozov told the Guardian that it could have been damaging for Google if news of the breach had emerged later and it appeared the company had done nothing.

According to the Wall Street Journal there was much consternation inside Google's Mountain View headquarters about what to do.

The newspaper cited two sources that said that Google chief executive Eric Schmidt was concerned about the potential backlash, while Google co-founder Sergey Brin has always had some concerns about operating in China given its human rights record.

Danny O'Brien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation says the spotlight is now on those other businesses operating in China like Microsoft and Yahoo.

"Our hope is that other tech companies will follow Google's lead. Too many of them have been willing to comply with Chinese demands that they check their values at the border."

This is a high stakes game for Google which has said that over the next few weeks it hopes to sit down with the Chinese government to work out a deal that would let it operate an unfiltered search engine.

In its blogpost, Google said it may well shut down its operation and close its office in China unless that happens.

So far the Chinese authorities have said nothing on the issue but there is little doubt that officials will be infuriated by this very public showdown along with such an ultimatum.

Some industry experts worry that it could complicate matters for other tech companies sensitive to being seen as accomplices of the Chinese government.

For Google, it could be argued that there is a lot to be gained from this situation.

Given that it is highly unlikely that China will relax the rules for Google, a mountain of great publicity awaits for the search giant taking such a strong stance after years of criticism.

Add to that an increase in user trust that the firm has gone public over such a breach and made the right noises about security.

Another benefit, as noted by, is that Google could endear themselves to regulatory bodies because such a hard line with China could win fans in Washington DC.

Clearly it is an interesting game moving forward and both sides have yet to play their hand.


  • 1. At 09:21am on 13 Jan 2010, James Rigby wrote:

    Welcome to 21st Century diplomacy, brinkmanship, skirmishes and war. There are new superpowers on the planet; along with China, America, Europe and Russia, there are now digital superpowers called Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter. There are also guerilla drone armies who act for major criminal gangs or can be sold to the highest bidder; these are the botnets. What we are seeing with China and Google is posturing, squaring up, each showing its muscles. What we saw with Latvia was a forewarning of the types of global wars to come.

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  • 2. At 10:15am on 13 Jan 2010, Calaba wrote:

    Simple really, As a large investigation involving 3rd parties, news of this investigation WOULD have leaked, and google would've had a lot of explaining to do. They want to be seen as the "good guys", and so had to make this public themselves and be seen to be making a stand.

    So, it seems that google have decided that operating in china has become too much of a liability, and there's more to be gained in the rest of the world through good PR.

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  • 3. At 10:21am on 13 Jan 2010, Cameron wrote:

    Someone has to stand up to China and they have to do it now (they should have done it years ago but hey). I would hope the rest of the tech companies would follow suit. Everyone has been tip-toeing around the Chinise authorities for years and the longer we wait the harder it gets to argue with them.

    Go Google! Lets hope this ends with real change.

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  • 4. At 10:51am on 13 Jan 2010, rodrigo0909 wrote:

    Now let's see, 1.3 billion people and counting. How can any corporate money making machine give up that many potential users/customers/sales ? It's either that, or put up with the Chinese Government, it's officials, and it's way of doing things. Google has managed to turn a blind eye for the past few years, i'm sure they will carry on as usual. Google simply has too much to lose. Mind you, Google isn't alone, many other big corporates do the same, ignore the human rights problems, turn a blind eye, and carry on as normal - the other option would just be too costly in this global open market. The irony is, that China is becoming a very powerful machine in all of this. It's making the western world look weak, and less important.

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  • 5. At 10:54am on 13 Jan 2010, Simon wrote:

    I for one lost a certain amount of faith and trust in Google when they agreed to censor the internet for the Chinese people in 2006. In my eyes they put profit above a moral obligation to make the internet free for all. Of course people will say that they are in the business to make money but Google had an opportunity to rise above all that which they didn't take at the time.

    Come on strong

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  • 6. At 10:57am on 13 Jan 2010, AllenT2 wrote:

    Is this all supposed to be a surprise? That's what happens when you do business with communists or any other countries where ultimately they will put you in prison or kill you if you oppose or criticize the government.

    No democracies should be engaging in any kind of business with such countries outside of humanitarian needs or emergencies. What America rightly does with Cuba it should have continued to do with China, to include every other real and virtuous democracy.

    Google, along with so many other western companies, have done business in China up until now knowing very well the kind of people they were dealing with. For them, and every other western company that does business in China, it is only about about the money and squeezing out more and more profits. If they truly cared about doing the right thing they never would have done business in China in the first place.

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  • 7. At 1:06pm on 13 Jan 2010, Stevie D wrote:

    #5 - Simon:
    "I for one lost a certain amount of faith and trust in Google when they agreed to censor the internet for the Chinese people in 2006. In my eyes they put profit above a moral obligation to make the internet free for all."
    I don't think that's fair. Google has no jurisdiction over China, and was offered a choice - presence in China with government censorship, or no presence in China. An uncensored was never an option. I agree with the line that the Chinese people are better off with a censored Google than they are without out - Google is undoubtedly the best search engine in terms of content, relevance and capability, and even though some pages are filtered out and some search queries may be redirected, the majority of people looking for information are going to find what they are looking for.

    OK, is not going to help people in China researching international history, but how much difference is it going to make for people looking up what's on TV tonight, or finding out how much a flight to Beijing costs, or getting the phone number for a tradesman?

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  • 8. At 2:16pm on 13 Jan 2010, Brian Merritt wrote:

    I would think Google have a better chance of convincing the Chinese authorities by working within China rather than either pulling out completely or futher brinkmanship.

    I can see a "Chinese Google Clone" owned and operated under the direct guidance of the Chinese government as the most likely outcome of escalating the current actions & activities.

    However, let's see how the story unfolds next...

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  • 9. At 8:07pm on 13 Jan 2010, Green Soap wrote:

    Google goes all moralistic?
    What next? Paying tax on their UK advertising revenues in the UK?

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  • 10. At 11:17pm on 13 Jan 2010, TechSing wrote:

    I am sure Google does a lot more for the Chinese people by being there than by not being there. It doesn't hurt to apply a little gentle pressure. But the Chinese government are not going to give way to huge public pressure like this. Much better to apply a gentle pressure continuously overtime behind the scenes. The louder Google complains the more certain the Chinese government will be that they would be better off without Google at all.

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  • 11. At 01:06am on 14 Jan 2010, david wrote:

    Is china building a cyber great wall ?
    I was reading some great info about China's great wall and I could not help but see similarity on how China wants to build a cyber great wall,
    to censor the rest of the world and only allow what it wants through its interenets... anyway, if you find the great wall fascinating here is the article I was reading earlier

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  • 12. At 06:51am on 14 Jan 2010, 0xdeadbeef wrote:

    #7 Stevie D
    "An uncensored was never an option."

    Are you aware that an uncensored was never an option either?

    Google routinely censors it's results left, right and centre at the behest of governments and even private entities of so-called democracies?

    Are you also aware that democracies ( including Australia and the UK ) have in place blacklists ( the actual contents of which are kept secret ) that prevent users seeing so-called "objectionable" material?
    Apparently dentistry was the latest thing to fall foul of the Australian blacklist.

    Perhaps people who agree that censorship of the network is necessary in democracies, should just shut up about China to avoid placing their feet in their mouths.

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  • 13. At 11:08am on 14 Jan 2010, TheVoiceOfReason wrote:

    Has it not occurred to anyone that this is exactly what China wants? They don't want Google operating in China (particularly if Google are pushing for uncensored searches), so they have insigated a program of intimidation to force Google out and rely on their own domestic search company which will then have a monopoly to control all that the Chinese people see... Google, of course, can use it as an excuse to play the moral high ground card, which they should have used in the beginning.

    There's no brinkmanship here - China wants Google out.

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  • 14. At 4:13pm on 14 Jan 2010, Cedders wrote:

    I'm glad to hear that Google is taking its moral responsibilities seriously, and particularly doing so in a way that makes the most noise about the appalling surveillance and intrusion affecting activists trying to improve human rights in China. Although Google is listed company, Sergey Brin and similar people are intelligent ex-academics who have consciences. Also of course there has rightly been pressure from US Congress.

    0xdeadbeef (3735928559) : yes, it is true that many domestic internet users in the UK are affected by CleanFeed (blocking a list of unknown sites chosen by the Internet Watch Foundation), but that's quite the same thing as forcing search engines to censor their results, is it? I agree though that it's a question of degree, so really we should take a firmer principled stand against CleanFeed and similar kludges to censor the net.

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  • 15. At 8:49pm on 14 Jan 2010, Niall wrote:

    Firstly I think its wrong to breach anyone's human rights without any exception.

    Can China afford to loose the business of a company as big as Google, and others that may follow? I suspect they have no choice but to loose Google if Google decides upon it. They risk the Chinese public awakening to what has been hidden from them for years and years and it could be very dangerous if China was to enter a crisis and become unstable politically which I suspect it might if this were to happen, and it could result in a situation far worse. Imagine if lets say the USA public found out they had been controlled but in a more sophisticated way such as mind control it would cause the whole world to become unstable and the same could be said if this happened within China.

    Even if China wanted to become democratic it would certainly be no quick process.

    We should realise to love others as ourself since prove that we are separate? It takes great strength to have all pervading power but an even greater strength to give it away. Google will gain more by leaving China and China will learn and realise they must change to act to their full capacity on the global stage.

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  • 16. At 2:06pm on 19 Jan 2010, cx wrote:

    I know most of you will have a bad impression about the chinese government because we have human right problems etc. but why the bloody western government so interested in our problem? What hell does our way of living effecting you? because western governments see us as a potential evil enemy which we never do. we always try to be friendly and so on.
    First, google only has 30% searching market in china. We as chinese welcome google to stay or leave. who cares. how can google think himself with massive power to threaten a country? it's a joke.
    the truth is that google cant compete with local search engine baidu. we as customer would prefer google if he can do better chinese searching than baidu BUT GOOGLE CANT. the government did pick on google for several times such as blocking porn issue early surmmer 2009 or some sensitive topics which chinese government doesnt want most people to know. Google just have to blame himself for not running the business according to the chinses laws. they should obey the chinese law when they are there even they dont like it just like any chinese company in a foreign country. okey back to topic. google suddenly stands up saying oh we cant take the chinese way anymore after FOUR years operating in china. why doesnt google do it when they started business in china?(just because they lost) they knew what kind of routines they are going!! they said they got attacked by large in scope and very penetrating(end up only got 2 accounts and didnt touch anything in the account. what a joke?!). lol, an IT company like google gets attacked more than thousands of times everyday. and they believe it's done by chinese government just because they said the email accounts are for freedom activitists(how did google know?did they have a name list?). oh oh,hang on. I can believe anything can't i? I believe google directed this act themselves and there wasnt any attack by anyone. and secondly how did google know all these accounts are some kind of freedom activitist? so USA government give a list to google and say to them watch these accounts they might be attacked by china?? or maybe google just then take all these account and read those emails? google is just finding a stage to pull out of china and they dont want to leave with a bad image because they dont want to show they lost to the other western country. therefore they play this act and put on every news seems that they just cant stand chinese government. pretty clever really.
    stupid google get out of china, dont use this this kind of game to confuse public's will beat you all over the world.we will see.
    posiblities of censored by bbc

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  • 17. At 12:29pm on 20 Jan 2010, Tenzin Boshay wrote:

    China has a history of 5,000 years. Google ? Except for 200 years of foreign domination and humiliation, she did fine. Look! Search engine or no search engine, Google or no Google, she will do just fine. Google needs the 350 million Internet users in China, don't you think?

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  • 18. At 12:35pm on 20 Jan 2010, Tenzin Boshay wrote:

    Does the US spy on others? What about the CIA drone hits on sovereign countries like Pakistan NW areas? How can some employees in Virginia press a button and launch a missile at a 'terrorist' or 'Taliban' without electronic eavesdropping ? Isn't that worse than getting information on your 'enemies'? BTW, Google has not proof that will stand up in any court. So, Google, put up or shut up!

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  • 19. At 00:50am on 23 Jan 2010, Cisco Rx wrote:

    Its Googles own fault for using Microsoft products in the first place, and has no grounds to blame China for Microsoft vulnerabilities. Everyone knows that microsoft has a plethora of backdoors, half of which they pretend not to know about.

    Moreover, everything that can be done with Microsoft can be done BETTER with Linux!

    I've boycotted Microsoft long ago, having no regrets, and encourage world to do the same. There is a reason why you can't find virus protection software for Linux: Linux simply has no vulnerabilities.

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  • 20. At 5:01pm on 23 Jan 2010, King wrote:

    Google and other companies are only care about the money and profits, the more the better! Whatever the rights, the freedom, and customers' inrersts, those are bullshit in their eyes. Everything should be run under the rules, otherwise the world must be mess.

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  • 21. At 4:06pm on 23 Feb 2010, Win Te Pu wrote:

    Google is silly to be acting like a colonial power when you are just a failed late entry into China web market. Baidu, Sina, QQ are all better than you. So whining won't get you anywhere. Rather I have changed from viewing Google as a fine company to view you as a stooge of US military-industrial complex, always bashing other countries the moment you don't get what you want. How much intrusion into private space by US government is never acknowledged, and Google does not even respond honestly to consumers' questions about privacy protection from US under the excuse of Homeland Security. Now if that is not censorship!!! So get out of the Chinese market, please. And I am starting to use Baidu more and more anyway.

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  • 22. At 01:28am on 13 Mar 2010, James wrote:

    What is seen to be visible in China - the open manipulation and censorship of information and the populations access to it - is no different to thin end of the wedge being seen in the UK and other counties where subjects deemed "objectionable" by some become illegal. How long before Nanny state decides that searches relating to Guy Fawkes - as opposed to Tienanmen Square (for example) are not to be tolerated and then blocked ? The internet is the "Wild West" of our time and there is a rabid hoard of Politicians and others that want to regulate it "In the public interest" to earn themselves a shiny badge for services to the state.

    I hope that Google does have the balls to say 'enough' to China and to point out to all that it is the populations of the whole world who deserve uncensored access to all information. Without the full facts how are we to make a judgment or indeed to judge China (And other countries) to be either right or wrong ? How is the Worlds population to climb out of the current morass of religious turmoil and posturing and become the enlightened place that it could easily be without access to the full facts and information?

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  • 23. At 9:09pm on 23 Mar 2010, Win Te Pu wrote:

    Google is just a tempest in a tea pot for the Chinese. Baidu, sina, 163, sohu, qq, qianlong,, etc etc. are serving the mainland market very well. Many Hong Kong residents, Cantonese speaking and British colonial educated, do not have the same sense as mainlanders and now are gradually losing their grip. Google is the same. Bad knowledge, bad investment, bad presumption, bad attitude, and so will just lose out.

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