Google's presence in China faces an uncertain future. The company may withdraw in the face of censorship and hacking attacks.
Google's been making plenty of waves with its decision to remove its filters from searches done within China. In a blog yesterday David Drummond, Google's chief legal officer, wrote that Google had been the target of egregious cyber attacks from inside the country. The attacks had targeted e-mail accounts of human rights activists within and outside China. Drummond wrote that in the light of these attacks Google would change the way it did business in China.
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. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn.
It is very possible that Google will get kicked out China for this decision. But although many human rights groups are lauding Google's decision, others on the web are spinning the story in a different manner.
Last night, I was emailing with NPR's China Correspondent Louisa Lim . She said that within China there were a lot of questions about Google's timing. She sent me a blog post she said represented common opinion in China.
In the post, this individual claims Google was losing market share in China to the locally owned Baidu. He suggests that the real reason for the company's move is that they had less than a 20 percent share of the market and shrinking. Some of the same speculation has already moved west into American blogs. (A Google spokesperson claims its profits there have been growing.)
It's an interesting theory. There are reasons to be a cynic about the motivations of a profit oriented company. But, in this instance, Google is up against a formidable opponent, capable of crafting its own version of events. So I have to ask what the Chinese government gains by potentially sending out the message that Google is leaving the country with its tail between its legs.
Jonathan Zittrain of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard told me that cyber attacks from authoritarian countries like China can often go beyond hacking outside the country.
"I think much more subtly and insidiously we will see governments having in essence a public relations strategy," said Zittrain. He said we've already seen this in Iran where the government has tried to put up postings that look like they are from ordinary people.
It seems possible that the Chinese government would want to discredit Google. According to Lim, authorities there are already censoring information about Google's announcement.
Many other American companies are struggling in China but they've been willing to stay because of the potential of China's growing markets. In its blog yesterday, Google reported that it also discovered at least 20 other companies had been attacked. So far only Adobe has acknowledged they were among the group.
While there are many reasons to be skeptical of Google's unofficial motto "Don't Be Evil," in this case, I think they may really be sticking to principle.
Google's co-founder Sergey Brin and his family emigrated to the United States from the former Soviet Union to escape an authoritarian country. Sources inside Google say he was never comfortable with censoring Google results in China.
But looking at it strictly from a business perspective, it doesn't look like in the long run, Google has much to gain financially by walking away from the Chinese market.