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.
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.
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, 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 Google.cn, 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 Google.cn the success it is today. We are committed to working responsibly to resolve the very difficult issues raised.
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."
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 Google.cn, 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.
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!