Yesterday, Google issued a blog stating that they may be removing themselves from China as an alternative to their local search engine, Baidu. Recently disclosed information that Google was a target of a focused, malicious hack attempt in mid-December, originating from China which resulted in the theft of some intellectual property.
Being a global entity such as Google, hack attempts are not uncommon, but this attempt in particular raised alarm bells once it was determined that there was a specific goal, in this case, a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists in China. They noted that while the hack was partially successful, only the creation dates of the accounts, and email subject headings were accessed, actual contents, were not. In addition, 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. Not by this hack in particular, but by a form of malware or phishing used to obtain account information.
In light of the evidence so far uncovered, Google went in a new direction and shared the story with a world wide audience, not to apologize for being hacked, but for a much different reason. These attacks touch on much larger issues of human rights, and the freedom of speech.
Google openly admitted that when they launched Google.cn in 2006, the company made concessions and agreed to censor their search results within the country, in the belief that allowing broader access to the internet, out weighed what was needed to be given up in order to do so. The statement issued at that time by Google was: “we will carefully monitor conditions in China, including new laws and other restrictions on our services. If we determine that we are unable to achieve the objectives outlined we will not hesitate to reconsider our approach to China.”
With the intent of the attacks clear, evidence of long term, ongoing surveillance, and with the addition of the attempts to limit freedom of speech on the Internet, Google has decided to rethink their position in China. No longer will results be censored to Chinese searchers, and over the span of the next few weeks, a re-assessment as to the feasability of operating in China, under these conditions will be conducted. If it’s determined that this agreement won’t work with the Chinese governement, then Google.cn, as well as Google’s Chinese offices, will be shut down.
Financially, it’s not a concern for the giant, as Google.cn accounts for around 1% of Google’s yearly profit. With the issue of freedom of information, and freedom of speech at hand, Google is making it’s stand. Where will it end up? That’s anyone’s guess.