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Going After Google

April 2, 2011

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.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. April 2, 2011 7:19 pm

    charged the company with trying to influence other countries’ domestic politics.

    As do so many large American companies and institutions.
    I’m on China’s side.
    Interesting post, Patrick.

    • michael campbell permalink
      April 2, 2011 10:59 pm

      Because that makes it ok.

      • April 3, 2011 4:09 am

        China is an independent nation that has a right to self-determination, as do all nations.
        Other nations (and large companies) may not agree with everything that happens in any particular country but, as the saying goes, let he who is without sin cast the first stone.
        I don’t necessarily agree with everything that goes on in China (my wife told me only yesterday that, as a part of her work training, she had witnessed executions), but I stand by China’s right not to be bullied and coerced into changing anything faster than it, itself, wants to change.
        I particularly dislike the fact that a (comparatively) young nation, the USA, seems to think it’s opinion is the be all and end all in every debate.
        I believe that democracy is a good thing, but I would love the Libyan rebels to take control, hold democratic elections, and end up with an Al-Qaeda led government… just so that I could see American politicians having apoplectic fits.
        Nothing is ever just black and white.

      • JeffC permalink
        April 3, 2011 9:33 am

        @honorarynewfie That has to be one of the most ridiculous comments I’ve read in quite sometime.

        You’d rather a country and its people end up with an oppressive regime just so you can so you can say “HA!”. Okrrr.

  2. April 3, 2011 1:38 am

    I guess this is what you call “death by a thousand cuts.”

  3. April 3, 2011 8:32 am

    Don’t worry about China. Sooner or later they will realize that resistance is futile.

  4. james II permalink
    April 3, 2011 9:43 am

    sadly, America does this too… but again that dosent make it right

  5. April 4, 2011 12:53 am

    Thank you, you have made my point for me perfectly by describing such a (hypothetical) siuation as the installation of an “oppressive regime”.
    In my simplistic understanding of the term it refers to a form of government, often dictatorial, which seeks to retain power by denying the populace what we in the western world refer to as “basic human rights”.
    As, in the scenario I described, the “oppressive regime” would have been democratically elected by the people themselves, using their “basic human right” of a free vote…
    a) How could it be described as an “oppressive regime” ?
    b) Where would that leave US politicians ?
    It is not democracy that the US wants the world to have, it is a world where the governments of the countries will cow-tow to whatever America, and it’s money-grabbing companies, want.
    The US and other countries may dislike (fear) organisations such as Al-Qaeda, possibly with some justification, but it is possible that such an organisation could win a free and fairly run election and if the US government were to react as you did and immediately denounce it as an “oppressive regime” then they (the US) would lose all credibity.

    and… @BloggerChief,
    Let’s be honest here, the only reason the US is interested in China is money. Period.
    If thousands of years of culture are wiped away in a comparative instant just to make Americans richer then that’s ok ?
    America could learn a lot from China, a nation which took to the water, had a look and, rather than trying to impose its will on all it saw, decided it was better off on its own and turned back. From what I know of it and what I’ve seen that was good decision.

    • prchovanec permalink*
      April 4, 2011 1:39 am

      Fear that a majority-elected government could turn and oppress its citizens was what motivated Jefferson and others to insist on the adoption of the Bill of Rights as a condition of ratifying the US Constitution. Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, struck a similar note when he expressed concerns about the “tyranny of the majority” in a democratic society. Elections decided by majority vote are not the only feature — and perhaps not even the most important feature — that define what we normally think of when we speak of “democracy.” A legal system based on common law and constitutional rights, for example, is actually an intentional constraint placed on majoritarian rule.

      I would also note, for the record, that Al-Qaeda has repeatedly and explicitly condemned what you refer to as “free and fair elections” as a violation of God’s law. They are not interested in taking part in elections, so the notion of them winning an election is a bit of a non sequitor. The Islamic Brotherhood, on the other hand, could plausibly come to power in an election (as Hamas did in Gaza), which would indeed pose a challenge to US policymakers who might view such a group as antithetical to its interests, values, or both.

      I don’t think it presents any inherent contradition to believe that, in the long-run, the United States should advocate democracy as a desirable form of government, while at the same time recognizing that, in the short-run, the outcome of specific elections could pose problems or setbacks to more immediate US objectives. I don’t think you even have to read anything diabolical into the tension between these two statements. All it shows is that life is complicated.

  6. April 4, 2011 3:26 am

    You are of course correct, Patrick, the Islamic Brotherhood would have been a better example.
    With regard to the other aspects of a Democracy I feel that the pressure will be put to bear to have the elections first, because they carry more weight with the media, with the other aspects being more formally addressed at a later stage. Regardless of any diplomacy that may be going on behind the scenes the media are always pushing the message of elections because they are more news worthy.
    Whatever transpires, life for those in the troubled parts is certainly going to be complicated for the foreseeable future.

  7. April 5, 2011 6:51 am

    everybody is doing the same ..

  8. observer permalink
    April 6, 2011 3:18 pm

    If Google isn’t a tool, why was Eric Schmidt in Bagdhad with a flak vest talking about how great it was to do business there?

    If Google isn’t an influencer, how do you explain what Eric Schmidt said when he stepped down as CEO (from “We’ve got very complicated government issues,” he said, adding that “we move quickly, and we tend to be disruptive at scale.”

    If Google isn’t political, what were all those campaign contributions for?

    Schmidt’s area of expertise is growing fail whales. Study Novell. I’m just worried he’s trying to make Google too big to fail and so friendly with government that they either get protection for being a monopoly in the search industry or when it does fail financially (more likely in my opinion) they’ll be first in line for the first software industry government bailout. At that point how would the US nationalized search engine be much different than China’s nationalized search engine? That’s where we seem to be headed at this point, or maybe we’re already there.

    The real underlying moral of the story really seems to be : “Don’t Spy, the Government Hates Competition”

    Regardless of whether that government is the US or China.

    Consider the recent legislation that suddenly authorized FTC to gain access to all of Google’s data for 20 years as part of mandatory “privacy audits” – now when they need to audit something they can do it for free and they have full reign. What are they going to do next to protect us, and please tell me it won’t be inspired by the TSA.

    And it seems to explain some of China’s actions, wanting access to activists’ email accounts, not wanting Google maps, and making it difficult for Google to compete on a level playing field. (that “…hates competition” part)

    Both countries have demonstrated they want full warrantless domestic surveillance of their citizens and Google already has that capability in a way that is palatable so far to citizens who still see themselves as customers instead of the product. How do the nation states get it? They either legislate their way into Google (US) or legislate Google out and something else in (China).

    • prchovanec permalink*
      April 6, 2011 3:52 pm

      My understanding is that Schmidt was the Google executive most determined to accommodate and try to stay in China.

  9. April 7, 2011 10:26 am

    Just wondering Patric, a few weeks ago China failed to meet the WTO deadline for allowing more foreign films into the country. This censorship ran counter to free trade principles, and eventually China might bow to that pressure.
    Would it be possible for Google to bring these recent actions of the Chinese gov’t to the WTO and claim that blocking their website is the same as blocking foreign films?

  10. Japan-Deny-Its-War-Crime-Atrocities permalink
    May 9, 2011 2:26 pm

    Google is a a just patriotic neo-con ally. Google now is a reason for US targeting China.

    ( 4:10 )

    After Bin Laden is killed, neo-con Francis Fukuyama said to Colbert Report:
    “Be afraid of the Chinese… they hacked into Google. Bin Laden people can’t made their underwear…”

    Colbert nicely concluded “China, you are next”

    Well done. Google. You define China as the evil.
    You keep China in the headline.
    And now your neo-con ally follow your lead to target China.

    Bravo!!! Google. Just Bravo!!!

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