Framing the Google disagreement with China

After three years in China, during which Google accepted the Chinese government’s demands for censored search, Google is changing its position. Yesterday on the official Google Blog in  “A New Approach to 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.

Google gave three reasons for the new approach.

  1. Sophisticated cyber attacks on Google and 20 other companies coming from China.
  2. Google has evidence to suggest that a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.
  3. 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. Google is quick to point out that the accounts have not been accessed through any security breach at Google, but most likely via phishing scams or malware placed on the users’ computers.

The post concluded with,

We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.

Google did not say they were pulling out of China immediately. Only that they were going to stop censoring search results and would talk to the Chinese government about it to determine the next steps.

It’s instructive to look at the immediate response to the news. It was cheered and sneered, and overblown with disregard for what Google actually said. Many framed it as the honorable American corporation that promised to do no evil vs. the big bad government. Look at this tweet or this one or this one. Places like Buzzbox aggregated stories about the news, showing headlines ranging from “Furious Google throws down gauntlet to China over censorship” to “How Much Will it Cost Google to Exit China?” The New York Times, The Guardian, Business Week—everyone was scrambling to learn more and expand on the story with more information than the official blog post contained. In the absence of much more information, the initial reactions on Twitter, in particular, was to spin it and spin it without much checking back to what the official blog post actually said.

It’s instructive to realize that Google is so important in the world that any news from them, especially something as amazing as a corporation taking a stand on possible human rights violations, is recognized by everyone as a really big deal. Just how powerful is Google, anyway? What will China do?

Is there any possibility that any corporation interested in doing no evil could have as much influence on American politics as the currently influential profit-driven corporations who call the shots? Now that would be something to see.

3 thoughts on “Framing the Google disagreement with China

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