After years of struggling to build its China operations, Google has threatened to pull out of the country following a sophisticated cyberattack on its corporate infrastructure. The California-based Internet giant also announced on Tuesday that it will drop its self-censorship of its Chinese-language Google.cn search engine, which the company had previously filtered to prevent it from returning results on topics that angered Chinese authorities.
David Drummond, Google's chief legal officer, wrote on the company's official blog that Google uncovered a broad hacking attempt in December that was targeted at more than 20 technology, finance, media and chemical companies. A primary target may have been the Gmail accounts of Chinese human-rights activists. "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," he wrote. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton quickly issued a statement that Google's allegations raised serious concerns. "We look to the Chinese government for an explanation," the Jan. 12 statement read. "The ability to operate with confidence in cyberspace is critical in a modern society and economy."
This morning in Beijing, Google.cn was returning results for sensitive topics like the Dalai Lama and the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement. Previously, a search for "Tiananmen" would only return results about the square itself, while noting that because of government restrictions some content was unavailable. Now Google.cn links to pages that include information about the bloody government crackdown in 1989, though the page appears to have fluctuated between uncensored and censored over the course of the day.
Google has long struggled to expand its China operations. After its search engine was routinely blocked or slowed by China's system of Internet controls, it created the filtered Google.cn in 2006. The hope was that by censoring select results, it would speed up searches for Chinese users.
But the decision to offer a censored search page prompted an outcry from human-rights activists and some members of Congress that the company was turning a blind eye to its "Don't be evil" motto for the sake of access to the lucrative Chinese market. "Google came into the market bending some of its own rules," says Mark Natkin, managing director of Marbridge Consulting in Beijing. "It was intoxicated with the prospect of this enormous and still just-beginning-to-develop market. I think it always knew it was already having a little bit of misgiving about being in the market, but it couldn't pass it up."
In the end, Google's compromises did little to help its position on the mainland. Average Chinese Web users never warmed to the company's services, and it came under repeated attacks from the authorities and state media for providing links to pornography. "They were trying to find a way to compromise without completely bending over and it turned out they couldn't win," says Rebecca MacKinnon, an expert on the Chinese Internet. "Over the past year they've been under growing pressure from the government to censor more tightly and been condemned in the Chinese media for exposing children to porn." Baidu, a Chinese search engine with a Google-lookalike home page, has used its better relationship with authorities and its indigenous appeal as a domestic company to surge past Google. Baidu was the first choice for 77% of Chinese Internet users, compared to 13% for Google, according to a September 2009 survey by the state-run China Internet Network Information Center.
By dropping its censorship, the company stands to regain some of the moral clout. Today, several Chinese bloggers delivered flowers to the company's Beijing headquarters to thank it for its new stand. "It's a public message that some people in China are picking up on," says MacKinnon. "A large Internet company, the largest in some ways and most influential globally, is saying publicly that the Chinese government's behavior is unacceptable, and that can't fail to resonate."
Google says it will discuss with the government how it will go about running an uncensored search engine in China. "We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China," wrote Drummond, the Google executive, on the Google blog. Given the company's tempestuous four years in China, the odds the authorities will now compromise are slim.
With reporting by Jessie Jiang / Beijing