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Four possible explanations for Google’s big China move

Yesterday, Google announced a major change in their policy in engaging with China – they will no longer censor search results on Google.cn to comply with Chinese policy. This almost certainly means that Google.cn will be blocked by the Great Firewall and that Google will no longer be able to operate in China.

While this aspect of Google’s announcement is sparking a great deal of conversation online, it comes at the end of a bombshell of an announcement – Google’s decision follows what appears to be a coordinated act of espionage aimed at its servers by Chinese attackers. The attack resulted, Google reports, in a theft of their intellectual property. They also report that a goal of the attack was to access the GMail accounts of Chinese human rights activists and supporters of Chinese human rights around the world. MacWorld reports that the attack targeted an internal system that Google had built to comply with search warrant requests for information on users. When it became clear that this internal system – evidently set up for the benefit of Chinese authorities – was being attacked and used to compromise Google’s internal networks, Google began discussions about disengaging from the world’s largest internet market.

There’s at least four ways to read Google’s decision:

Google decided to stop being evil.
Google has received reams of bad press from their decision to comply with Chinese government regulations and censor search results for Chinese users. It’s never been entirely clear to me why Google’s received more criticism than Microsoft – who admit they censored Chinese bloggers, and whose Chinese-language tools prevent posting of articles about human rights and democracy – or Yahoo, who turned over information on user Shi Tao to Chinese authorities that led to ten years imprisonment for “leaking state secrets”. I suspect we want to hold Google to a higher standard because they’ve put forth an informal motto: “Don’t be evil”, and compromising with the Chinese government looks like a violation of that stance.

Google’s taken steps to minimize the exposure of user data in China – services like Gmail, which contain sensitive personal data, or which permit publishing, like Blogger, are hosted in the US, not China. (This has made it harder for these tools to achieve market share against Chinese competitiors.) They censored in a more transparent fashion than some of their competitors, displaying a message at the bottom of each page, stating that sites had been removed from the results to comply with regulations. Google is a founding member of the Global Network Initiative, a partnership between industry, academia and the nonprofit community designed to develop best practices for engaging in closed societies like China.

In my opinion – shaped, no doubt, by the fact that I’ve got a lot of friends within Google and have worked closely with the company in a couple of contexts – Google was a lot less evil than some of its competitors. But continued involvement in China continued to be a thorn in the side of Google on the PR front, and I know many people within the company questioned whether engaging in China was worth the compromises it entailed. The move to leave the Chinese market may be an example of Google returning to its core values and demonstrating an unwillingness to compromise.

Google retreated from a very tough market.
Google wasn’t doing all that well in the Chinese search market – they were a distant second to Baidu, and faced extreme challenges in gaining market share. Google’s main properties – google.com and related sites – are frequently inaccesible through the Great Firewall, and Google’s Chinese site – google.cn – was subject to a great deal of scrutiny from the Chinese press and from regulators. CCTV ran an “exposé” on Google.cn, demonstrating – horror of horrors! – that the internet includes links to pornography – this story led to increased oversight of Google’s Chinese site. Friends within Google tell me that it was a constant struggle to respond to complaints from Chinese regulators, and that they believed competitors like Baidu were reporting Google’s alleged violations to regulators, increasing scrutiny on the company.

The situation within Google China was already quite complicated. Kai-Fu Lee, Google’s China chief, quit in September, giving no clear reasons for his departure. His departure started speculation that Google might be discovering that they couldn’t be competitive in a Chinese market without making even larger compromises to corporate ideals.

It’s hard to imagine Google walking away from a market as potentially lucrative as China, even if they were in a tough battle for second place. And they certainly didn’t walk away quietly. By (obliquely) accusing the Chinese government of involvement in corporate espionage and challenging the government to shut the company down for providing uncensored search, “Google has taken the China corporate communications playbook, wrapped it in oily rags, doused it in gasoline and dropped a lit match on it.” (Those evocative words are from top Chinablogger Imagethief.) This isn’t a temporary strategic retreat – this is a retreat where you detonate the bridges behind you.

Google abandoned Chinese users.
Despite its second place in the market behind Baidu, there are millions of dedicated Google users in China, and many of them are deeply disappointed today and worried about losing access to services they’ve grown to depend on. Reading their comments in translation on Global Voices, thanks to Bob Chen, it’s clear the frustration is less with Google than with the Chinese authorities. One translated tweet is especially poignant:

The sin of facebook is that it helps people know who they wanna know. The sin of Twitter is that it allows people to say what they wanna say. The sin of Google is that it lets people find what they wanna find, and Youtube let us see what we wanna see. So, they are all kicked away.

Bob also shares a joke about China in the years after Google’s departure:

People born in 90s: Today I stepped out of the Great Firewall and saw a foreign website named Google. Shit, it is all but a copy of Baidu.
Born in 00s: What do you mean by stepping out of Great Firewall?
Born in 10s: What do you mean by website?
Born in 20s: What is “foreign”?

Perhaps most striking is a campaign to lay flowers in front of Google’s headquarters in Beijing. Rebecca MacKinnon reports that Tsinghua University’s security department has banned students from taking flowers to Google headquarters without permission.

(Here’s a sympathetic view of Google’s decision to pull out from Chinese activist Michael Anti, who’s been censored in the past by Microsoft.)

Google is about to join the front lines of the anticensorship wars.
Hal Roberts, John Palfrey and I published a study of tools designed to subvert and circumvent internet censorship a few months back, based on research we conducted over the course of three years. In the course of that research, we ended up with a simple realization about the design of censorship circumvention software:

A robust anti-censorship system has, at minimum, three components:
– Lots of non-contiguous IP addresses, making it difficult for censors to block the entry points into the system
– Huge amounts of bandwidth that can access the public internet, as a censorship circumvention system is basically an ISP
– Multiple methods to feed fresh IP addresses to your users

This isn’t a complete definition, of course – good anticensorship systems use SSL encryption to prevent keyword blocking, but that’s a solved problem. The three components above tend to be very hard for small anti-circumvention projects to solve. It’s very hard to obtain lots and lots of IP addresses, and very expensive to provision sufficient bandwidth… unless you’re Google, in which case, these obstacles should be trivial. There’s still lots of work that needs to be done ensuring that users of circumvention systems get fresh IP addresses, but a Google-backed anticensorship system (perhaps operated in conjunction with some of the smart activists and engineers who’ve targeted censorship in Iran and China?) would be massively more powerful (and threatening!) than the systems we know about today.

These tools would have a built-in market – the millions of users who were enjoying Google’s tools from within China – and could radically change the landscape of the internet freedom field. An emphasis on internet freedom tools would allow Google to engage with a smaller Chinese market, but would allow them to maintain a toe in the waters while maintaining a stance of disengagement with the Chinese government.

Is Google going to do this? I have no idea. I hope so. They could have done so previously, but it would have been viewed as a shot across China’s bow. Now that they’ve launched a torpedo, that shot across the bow seems more likely.

At Global Voices, we were thrilled that Google chose to partner with us and Thompson/Reuters in offering the Breaking Borders Award “to honor outstanding web projects initiated by individuals or groups that demonstrate courage, energy and resourcefulness in using the Internet to promote freedom of expression.” It would be very exciting to see Google becoming one of those groups using their energy, resourcefulness and resources to combat censorship online… and it would certainly take some corporate courage on their part.

We’ll know a lot more about what Google’s doing in the next few days. Responses are already piling up online. Evgeny thinks Google is bluffing, or simply retreating from an unsuccesful market position. Jonathan Zittrain sees this as a masterstroke, aligning Google’s business with its values, and shares my hope that Google will dedicate major resources to censorship circumvention. Dharmishta Rood links to a bevy of reactions from around the web. I’m anxiously awaiting Rebecca’s analysis, which she promises when she finishes two other articles that are due. (Man, I know that feeling.)

39 thoughts on “Four possible explanations for Google’s big China move”

  1. Hi Ethan
    Isn’t possibility #4 basically “Google picks a fight with the Government of the People’s Republic of China”? What a precedent! “Commercial corporation declares war on a nation!”

    What they did today was say “ok, we’ve been attacked, we don’t want to deal with this kind of BS anymore, ciao!” What benefit would they have to step up and actively fight to undermine the Chinese government? And isn’t that an act of war?

    (Which reminds me of a certain closed-door meeting in a basement of UofT a few years back where a certain Oxford network security researcher showed us how to take down the Great Firewall, but refused to make that info public, because that *would* be an act of war: attacking a nation’s communications infrastructure.)

    We live in interesting times… ;)

  2. In a word, Boris, “yes”. If Google goes after censorship circumvention with meaningful resources, it could dramatically shift how internet filtering works. I don’t think it constitutes an act of war, but it would certainly put Google and China into a (more) antagonistic relationship. It’s the strength of the Google announcement that makes me think this is possible… :-)

    As for that network security researcher… I don’t think the attack was as powerful as presented. My sense continues to be that there’s no silver bullet – anticensorship is hard, expensive work, which is why Google would be such an amazing ally.

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  4. Companies have a long history of declaring war on nations, including China. That’s something not too likely to be lost on the Chinese in this situation. It’s just usually not been For Good, and they usually had their own mercenary armies.

    Now they just all have hackers. We’ve come a long way from John Company that way.

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  6. On the last one – they already fund Tor, I believe.

    And as much as I share your hope, I’d be shocked if it was done in any direct method. As you know, being an anti-circumvention promoter can be dangerous. Who was the dissident that was attacked at his American home by unknown assailants? Google can’t open their employees up to that vulnerability with an act of war.

  7. I don’t think Google actually funds Tor, Kevin, though I could be wrong. If so, they’re a pretty small donor – the site lists corporations as providing 5% of the project’s support.

    I don’t see supporting circumvention as an act of war – I think Boris was being a bit provocative in that comment. If support for circumvention is war, then the US and China are at war. The biggest funders in the circumvention space are the US State Department and the International Broadcasting Board of Governors!

  8. Its kinda confusing, so now google is against censorship, what about the censorship google uses against an entire nations for some services that are supposed to be open source, like google code or google appengine.
    google code hosts a lots of open-source projects which most of them are not built by google, so when you block some user from accessing anything in code.google.com then you are preventing him from accessing a project that is hosted on your service because you are not “evil”.
    I think “open source” is not that “open” anymore

  9. Wael, I’m guessing from your blog that you’re referring to Google blocking some services in Syria? While I agree with you about the frustration, Google is responding to US treasury department regulations that prohibit US companies from doing business with Syria and a couple of other nations. It’s a very frustrating, and probably misguided, regulation and I know folks at Google would like to see the regulation changed in the Obama administration. That said, until the regulation changes, they pretty much have to prohibit that download…

    I know for a fact that you’ll be able to download code from Syria using a proxy server – you might consider using Tor and accessing the site through Tor – torproject.org

  10. Hi Ethan, Kevin,

    Roger from Tor here. Actually, Google has funded us — you can see them on our sponsors page.

    But the funding was from their open source group, not their anti-censorship group (if such a group even exists). Google funded us because we’re good at making reusable open source security tools. First, they’ve been sponsoring students to work with us during Google Summer of Code for the past three years. Second, they funded design and prototype of a secure updater that doesn’t rely on a central master signing key you need to keep in a vault. And most recently, they’ve been funding us to make libevent (a general-purpose networking library that we rely on enough that we started maintaining it) better in terms of portability and scalability.

    So yes, they fund us, but Tor is about a lot more than just circumvention, and so is Google. As for whether their recent move is Ethan’s theory #2 or Ethan’s theory #4? I’m still withholding judgment. :)

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  13. re: the market position argument – keep in mind that it’s impossible to extract Google’s success in a given market from its ability to provide the fastest, most robust and dynamic search results that are responsive to the users in that market. The Chinese government effectively caps all of these components and Baidu lead on Google is in no small part due to censorship.

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  15. My guess is that DNS services from Google could be a powerful part of an anticensorship system, Steve. When I work with activists in countries where censorship is rampant, one of the first things I teach them to do is set their DNS to It’s almost as easy to remember as :-)

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  19. Basically we are down to two options:
    1) They don’t want to be evil (with 4 being a subsequent enforcement by not just leaving “the bad side” but joining forces of the “good”
    2) They are retreating from a tough market

    Your point 3) “Google abandoned Chinese users” is not a motive, but a sad consequence
    To me your option 4) as stated above is an optional part of 1)

    First let’s see if Google is actually taking action.
    If they do, I believe that this is actually driven by 1), commercially made easier by 2).
    But: this is VERY painful for Google as they are turning away from a boosting economy that will surpass the US in around 25 years (http://www.carnegieendowment.org/publications/index.cfm?fa=view&id=20282).
    The positive fact is that – with ~25% market share and a brand like this – Google’s retreat will not happen silently in China and should support building up local momentum and awareness regarding censorship and things getting worse, not better.
    Chinese authorities will have to consider such impact of any future move…

    Looking forward how this evolves…

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