Going After Google
When Google threw down the gauntlet and threatened to quit China early last year, a lot of people figured the Chinese government would come down on the company like a ton of bricks. Surprisingly, that didn’t happen — at least not for a while. Google redirected its Chinese portal to Hong Kong, evading Chinese censors, and despite the occasional hiccup, and a lot of speculation that it might be blocked, its popular Gmail service remained accessible.
But as the old Afghan (no, not Klingon) proverb has it, “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” Over the past few weeks, a series of news reports have emerged that suggest the Chinese government has embarked on a concerted effort to target and punish Google for its transgressions. Consider:
- On March 4, an article on the website of China’s state-published People’s Daily accused Google of being “a tool of the United States government.” It said Google has “played a role in manufacturing social disorder” and charged the company with trying to influence other countries’ domestic politics.
- On March 11, Google posted an entry on its official blog noting that the Gmail accounts of several of its users were coming under what it called “highly targeted and apparently politically motivated attacks.” The origin and nature of the attacks, related reports confirmed, indicated China was trying to hack activists’ email accounts.
- On March 21, Google publicly accused the Chinese government of interfering with Gmail access, causing a marked slowdown in service and error messages (I can personally confirm that, around that same time, this became true of my own Gmail account; the disruption is severe and continues to this day). Google said it had looked into complaints and confirmed the problem was not coming from their end. Said one Google spokesman, “This is a government blockage carefully designed to look like the problem is with Gmail.” In reply, China’s Foreign Ministry said it “does not accept this type of accusation.” Nevertheless, tests indicate that Gmail is now 45 times slower than QQ when accessed from China.
- Last week, Chinese authorities informed Google that if it did not apply for a license to provide mapping services in China by March 31, its popular Google Maps service would be blocked in China starting July 1. The licensing requirement is a new one, initiated in 2010 (after Google’s threat to leave), and applications must be approved by the State Security bureau. Frequently in China, such licenses require the transfer of proprietary software code, which somehow ends up in the hands of domestic Chinese competitors. Google declined to apply for the license and is currently in negotiations with the Chinese government.
- On March 28, Chinese Internet portal operator Sina announced that it would be dropping Google’s search service from its website and replacing it with its own search technology. Around the same time, Beijing research firm Analysys International reported that Google’s share of revenue in China’s online search market had dropped 19.6% in the 4th Quarter of 2010, down from a high of 35.6% in the same period in 2009 (before Google threatened to exit the market).
- On March 31, Chinese state publications ran a story reporting that two Google business units and one affiliated company are being investigated for tax evasion. It is worth noting that, the day before, the State Council Information Office (SICO) — the agency charged with overseeing state media and sometimes referred to as the “Ministry of Truth” — issued a “level one implementation order” instructing all Chinese media outlets to put the story on their front pages or lead reports.
Google is certainly not alone in being targeted. China has blocked Facebook and Twitter since the summer of 2008 (shortly after the post-election protests in Iran), and a number of popular VPN proxy services (which allow people in China to “climb the Great Firewall” and access an uncensored Internet) have been blocked or disrupted over the past few weeks. But from the pattern that’s unfolding — particularly the tax charges and the intentional decision by China’s top propaganda authorities to play them up in the state media – it certainly looks like Google is being singled out for special attention. Its days in China may well be numbered.