Whether its executives planned it or not, Google may one day attain the enviable rank of an old friend of China. During the gradual opening up in the 1980s and 1990s, many Western companies expelled during the Maoist period returned to privileged positions. When China opens up to the information economy the way it has for manufacturing and finance, Google could be the first technology company to have done well by both standing its ground and finding a face-saving compromise.
Google made good on its pledge to stop censoring search results in China through the elegant solution of moving its search engine to Hong Kong. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal published last week, Google co-founder Sergey Brin said that the idea was “actually relayed to us indirectly from the Chinese government.”
He didn’t give details, but this helped Google take a page from Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” achieving its goals while helping China save face. Google now also offers uncensored search on its Hong Kong site with the language choice of the simplified Chinese characters used on the mainland or the complex ones used in Hong Kong.
View Full Image
For its part, China can say that Google is complying with its laws, which define Hong Kong as a special administrative region. Hong Kong has broad free-speech protections under the “one country, two systems” formulation that London and Beijing established to allow the British handover of Hong Kong in 1997. Of course, Beijing can block access by mainland residents to politically sensitive search results on the Hong Kong site, as it does for other Web sites outside the mainland.
Recent history shows that standing your ground with Beijing can garner respect. Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, was officially branded a “prostitute for 1,000 years” and a “criminal for 1,000 generations” for his efforts to protect freedoms by bringing modest democracy to the then-colony. China’s insult that “Google is not God” seems mild in comparison. Lord Patten has since been welcomed back as an old friend in China.
Google had reasons beyond China to take action. Mr. Brin confirms that what prompted the company to reverse its 2006 decision to censor search results in China was the hacking of the email accounts of human-rights activists in the U.S. and elsewhere. Mr. Brin, who was born in the Soviet Union, told the Journal that while China had made progress, “in some aspects of their policy, particularly with respect to censorship, with respect to surveillance of dissidents, I see the same earmarks of totalitarianism, and I find that personally quite troubling.”
David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer, linked the hacking incidents to the company’s decision to stop censoring search results in China. “Most hacking attacks that you see are freelancers—maybe government sponsored, maybe not,” he told The Atlantic last week. “This attack, which was from China, was different. It was almost singularly focused on getting into Gmail accounts specifically of human-rights activists, inside China or outside.” This “was all part of an overall system bent on suppressing expression, whether it was by controlling Internet search results or trying to surveil activists.”
Google needed to signal to users around the world that its systems can be trusted, or at least that the company will disclose breaches. Trust is especially important in the new digital medium where privacy rights and expectations are still evolving. Google needs to assure users that it won’t abuse its unparalleled data about what we search, read, watch and write. We expect our email accounts to be sacrosanct, not accessible to foreign governments or other hackers.
So it was likely no coincidence that Google last week also issued an update for users about its email service entitled “Detecting Suspicious Account Activity.” This new feature lets people check to see where their accounts have been accessed. They can get alerts when their account is being accessed from what Google identifies as a suspicious location.
The Google-China standoff shifts the spotlight back to Washington. Even Google needs help, rightly comparing today’s hackers interfering with communications to the pirates who had to be defeated to ensure free shipping. U.S. companies are ahead of U.S. policy.
“As challenging as China may be for Google,” U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said, “my first preference is always to see if we can’t build a partnership to work with China to see if we can’t get a resolution sooner rather than later.” In short, no help there. Meanwhile, China continues to block Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Google has done as much as a private company can, but its services remain vulnerable. Security online will only be assured when the U.S. decides that the free flow of information is a matter of national interest worth protecting.