In nuclear deterrence, both the Americans and the Soviets knew it was all or nothing: the Cuban missile crisis was resolved out of fear of catastrophic escalation. But in cyberattacks, the damage can range from the minor to the catastrophic, from slowing computer searches to bringing down a country’s cellphone networks, neutralizing its spy satellites, or crashing its electrical grid or its air traffic control systems. It is difficult to know if small attacks could escalate into bigger ones.
Mrs. Clinton went down that road in her speech on Thursday, describing how a country that cracked down on Internet freedom or harbored groups that conduct cyberattacks could be ostracized. But though sanctions might work against a small country, few companies are likely to shun a market the size of China, or Russia, because they disapprove of how those governments control cyberspace or use cyberweapons.
That is what makes the Google-China standoff so fascinating. Google broke the silence that usually surrounds cyberattacks; most American banks or companies do not want to admit their computer systems were pierced. Google has said it will stop censoring searches conducted by Chinese, even if that means being thrown out of China. The threat alone is an attempt at deterrence: Google’s executives are essentially betting that Beijing will back down, lift censorship of searches and crack down on the torrent of cyberattacks that pour out of China every day. If not, millions of young Chinese will be deprived of the Google search engine, and be left to the ones controlled by the Chinese government.
An Obama administration official who has been dealing with the Chinese mused recently, “You could argue that Google came up with a potential deterrent for the Chinese before we did.”