Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Not All Google-Eyed Over China

So, one big story last week was the fact that Google may pull out of China in response to a cyber attack.

For those unfamiliar with the whole situation, Google has been operating in China using a separate search engine especially tailored to the demands of the Chinese government,, one that would meet their demands to omit objectionable content, that is, content that is critical of their government and political system.

I should add that my expertise in this area is limited, these are just my offhand musings, the expert to go to in this area is my friend Ron Deibert at the University of Toronto, head of the Citizen Lab. But in case you're interested in what I have to say, I'll continue.

Google made the announcement on the Official Google Blog, which they do right here on blogger blogspot, in a post entitled A new approach to China on January 12.  Here's what they have to say, for starters:

Like many other well-known organizations, we face cyber attacks of varying degrees on a regular basis. In mid-December, we detected a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google. However, it soon became clear that what at first appeared to be solely a security incident--albeit a significant one--was something quite different.

First, this attack was not just on Google. As part of our investigation we have discovered that at least twenty other large companies from a wide range of businesses--including the Internet, finance, technology, media and chemical sectors--have been similarly targeted. We are currently in the process of notifying those companies, and we are also working with the relevant U.S. authorities.

Second, we have evidence to suggest that a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. Based on our investigation to date we believe their attack did not achieve that objective. Only two Gmail accounts appear to have been accessed, and that activity was limited to account information (such as the date the account was created) and subject line, rather than the content of emails themselves.

Third, as part of this investigation but independent of the attack on Google, we have discovered that 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. These accounts have not been accessed through any security breach at Google, but most likely via phishing scams or malware placed on the users' computers.

 They go on to try to reassure everyone that they have already taken steps to deal with the security issues, and then conclude with the following:

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, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down, and potentially our offices in China.

The decision to review our business operations in China has been incredibly hard, and we know that it will have potentially far-reaching consequences. We want to make clear that this move was driven by our executives in the United States, without the knowledge or involvement of our employees in China who have worked incredibly hard to make the success it is today. We are committed to working responsibly to resolve the very difficult issues raised.

This announcement drew widespread praise from the Twitterati, at least, those new media folks that I do follow on Twitter.  And rightly so.  And while some cynics noted that Google only had a small share of the Chinese market anyway, no more than 30% and maybe only 15%, the leader being China's own search engine, Baidu, that doesn't mean that Google couldn't eventually overtake Baidu as it did Yahoo here in the United States.  And even if it didn't, 15% of the enormous Chinese market is nothing to sneeze at.  I used to say to my old Media Ecology Association crony, Casey Lum, who is very involved with China, that if he could just get one tenth of one percent of the population there to join the MEA, we'd be in great shape.

In a January 14th article by Jessica Vascellero in the Wall Street Journal, A Heated Debate at the Top, we learn that the decision involved some negotiating among Google's top executives, who held different positions on the matter:

Google Inc.'s startling threat to withdraw from China was an intensely personal decision, drawing its celebrated founders and other top executives into a debate over the right way to confront the issues of censorship and cyber security.

The blog post Tuesday that revealed Google's very public response to what it called a "highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China" was crafted over a period of weeks, with heavy involvement from Google's co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

For the two men, China has always been a sensitive topic. Mr. Brin has long confided in friends and Google colleagues of his ambivalence in doing business in China, noting that his early childhood in Russia exacerbated the moral dilemma of cooperating with government censorship, people who have spoken to him said. Over the years, Mr. Brin has served as Google's unofficial corporate conscience, the protector of its motto "Don't be Evil."

Now, I find this quite interesting indeed.   You see, my parents, in addition to being Holocaust survivors, also fled from the Communists in the aftermath of World War Two (and had some experience with them before and during the war).  There is a big difference between people who had actually lived under Communist regimes, and those who only understand Communism in theoretical and second-hand terms.  Communist refugees do have a tendency to be overly hawkish admittedly, my father voted for Goldwater in 1964 because of his anti-Communism.  But on the other hand, the tendency that those on the left had of suggesting an essential equivalence between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R was at best naive, and in many ways absurd.  I think my mother put it best, when I recall her talking to some counterculture folks about it back in the sixties when I was a kid, that Communism sounds like a good idea, it appeals to the heart, but only in theory, in practice it just doesn't work out.

So, for me, while I don't have the firsthand experience, I got the message.  The way I'd put it is that Communism is a nice idea that's never really been tried out, except maybe in Israel by the kibbutzniks, and elsewhere on communes (the commune being the essence of Communism).  True Communism is actually anti-government, putting it in line with some of the most conservative elements today, and very much the opposite of Leninist/Stalinist/Maoist totalitarian socialist systems.

Okay, I'm ranting, I know.  Well, let's look at what the Associated Press had to say about all this in a January 14th article entitled, Google's decision on China traces back to founders:

Google Inc. co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page have always said they put their principles before profit, even to the point of using their control of the company to take a stand.

The billionaires' idealism underlies a potentially expensive decision disclosed this week: Google's threat to leave China's rapidly growing Internet market in defense of free speech and its users' privacy rights.

It's a bold move unlikely to be made without the explicit support of Page and Brin, given the possible fallout. Departing the world's most populous country could slow Google's earnings growth and weigh on its stock.

Although Google has thousands of shareholders, it has two classes of stock, giving Page and Brin veto power over everyone else, including the company's chief executive, Eric Schmidt. Combined, Page and Brin hold 58 percent of the voting power among shareholders while Schmidt has less than 10 percent, according to the company's disclosures.

Google said this week's China bombshell was the result of an "incredibly hard" decision, but the company declined to elaborate on the internal debate. Google declined requests to interview Page, Brin and Schmidt.

Page and Brin, both 36, pledged to strive to do the right thing in a manifesto that they distributed just a few months before Google took its stock public in 2004.

"Don't be evil," they wrote, evoking the phrase that has become Google's motto. "We believe strongly that in the long term, we will be better served -- as shareholders and in all other ways -- by a company that does good things for the world."

Critics contended Brin and Page broke that promise in 2006 when Google created a Chinese version of its search engine, at, to be in a better position to profit from China's booming economy. To gain the toehold, Google complied with the Chinese government's demands for censorship of Internet search results about political dissent and other hot-button issues.

Okay, so it is time for me to get back into rant mode.  There is a word for what Google has been doing in China.  It's called collaborating, and not the good kind of collaborating that goes on with social media, crowdsourcing, and all that. It's collaborating with the enemy, making a deal with the devil, giving in to evil.  Can you say Vichy?

We should not forget that, despite their economic liberalization and shift to a more capitalistic system, China's government remains repressive and authoritarian.  More than that, while they may have downgraded the status of Mao Tse-Tung, and may not be going on about Marx and Lenin the way they used to, China is still ruled by the Communist Party, still essentially under a one-party political system, still the People's Republic of China, still what we once referred to as Red China. 

It sometimes seems as if China's image has become almost benign.  We really don't seem to hear all that much about Tibet, for example, or the Falun Gong religious movement, or the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.   We certainly don't hear much about the general lack of political freedom that exists there.   No, the main topic of discussion is China's economic ascendancy, the fact that it now has a great deal of economic power over the US, and the prediction, and fear, that China is poised to eclipse the US as the world's leading economic power sometime soon, and the world's leading cultural power, and maybe even the world's leading military power as well.

So, it's not surprising that American businesses sometimes seem desperate to do business with China.  It's a previously untapped market, with more potential consumers than anywhere else on earth, and a rising standard of living.  It's the China rush, like the gold rushes of an earlier time.  And we do need to sell a whole lot of stuff to China to buy back our currency, pay off our loans, so it's not exactly unpatriotic to seek out Chinese trading partners.

Marx said that the capitalist will sell you the rope with which to hang him, and we've seen this happen over and over again, in the pursuit of profits and short-term gains.  And of course it goes without saying that the capitalist will sell the rope that's used to hang others.  There is nothing inherent in capitalism as a system or business as an activity that draws limits, that says that enough is enough, that says that a certain level of profits or productivity is sufficient and there is no need to go any further.  No, left to its own devices, this sort of system will move inexorably to increase profits, with no upward limit, to increase efficiency, to increase productivity, limited only by diminishing returns or resources.

You have to outside of the economic system to find the other values, ideals, and behaviors that put a stop to the relentless pursuit of financial gain and technological efficiency, to systems of ethics and morals, to religion, philosophy, politics, education, and to the family.

So, let's applaud Google's leadership for considering the possibility of sacrificing profits for ethics, for considering the possibility of putting an end to collaborating with evil.

And let's return now to the AP article:

Human rights groups and even some Google shareholders have been urging Google to pull out of China for the past four years, only to have Schmidt diplomatically reject the idea. He has maintained that Google needs to be in China to protect its franchise as Chinese becomes the Internet's predominant language -- a transition that Schmidt thinks could occur within five years.

Brin, though, has never been completely comfortable with Google playing by the Chinese government's rules.

In each of the last two years, Brin abstained from voting on shareholder proposals demanding that Google defy China's censorship policies. The symbolic act was designed to show he shared some of the concerns outlined in the measures, according to Brin.

Some of Brin's misgivings can be traced to family's own experience under Communism. He was born in Moscow in 1973. He and his family fled the Soviet Union when he was 6 years old, but he has said the oppressive policies of the government and the anti-Semitism directed at his family and other Russian Jews have helped shape his thinking on political and social issues.

You can read the rest of the article for yourself if you like.  Stephen Hsu, a physics professor at the University of Oregon, posted a piece entitled Google Dead in China? on the Technology Review blog on January 14th, and after going over much of the same ground as the other articles I cited, he concludes, "'Don’t Be Evil' always did sound a bit to me like tikkun olam, or repairing the world... Not sure whether CEO Schmidt is down with that ;-)"

Tikkun olam, repairing or healing the world, completing the task of Creation begun by God, that is our responsibility as human beings, according to Jewish tradition (we talk about it all the time at Congregation Adas Emuno), stemming from the Kabbalah.  Tikkun olam, exactly!  Thank you Mr. Brin.

And that's why American capitalism is not irredeemable, as long as there are individuals willing to throw a monkey wrench into the machine, act as human beings.  And that's why American individualism, when it is not out of balance with the needs of the community, is still one of our best hopes for tikkun olam.

There's so much worry about China today.  But I remember how much we worried about Japan in the eighties, and the Arab oil sheikdoms in the seventies.  I remember how worried we were about Communism, we thought that system would continue to compete with our own centuries from now.  We never imagined the collapse of the Soviet Union, or the Japanese economy.  So, I'm not worried.  Hey, maybe I'm wrong, and I certainly have no illusions about our position in the world being eternal, and we may well have passed our peak, I don't know, but Rome didn't fall in a day, or a century.  And me, I'm not going to place any bets on the longterm prospects of China, not unless they suddenly embrace true democracy and human rights.  Not until people are clamoring to immigrate to China, the way they are to come to the US, western nations in general, and any open society.  No, for the long term, I expect the US to remain the place to be, and otherwise, I'd put my money on the southern hemisphere, and countries like Australia, South Africa, and Brazil.  Give me until the end of the century, and then let's see.  You can look me up, ha ha.  See you then!

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