Last tuesday, Google, the world’s leading search engine, announced that it had faced a cyber attack aimed at gathering information on Chinese human rights activists and that,it was no longer willing to censor search results on its Chinese service. Even if that meant having to pack up and go.
If such a public declaration is rather unsual and though the news is generally warmly welcomed,opinions on why Google decided to lift the censorship after four controversial years of active participation differ.On the one hand, Google stands as the company which defended human rights regardless of profit margins, and on the other hand, it is said to have found a honourable way out of China after it failed to displace its local rivals.
We shall try and analyse Google’s unprecedented announcementconsidering various perspectives.
While this presentation will focus on causes, the debate will also deal with effects.
But first, let’s remind you of facts.On tuesday the 12th, Google published a post on its official blog Under the name of its SVP that reported a cyber attack originating from China on its corporate infrastructure in mid-december. The attack resulted in the theft ofintelectual property and the hacking of two gmail accounts belonging to human rights activists. What is the link between the attack and Google’s will to put an end to censorship -and possibly to its business operations- in China, you might ask? All the more since Google did not mention whom it believed responsible for the intrusion.Well, if we are to trust them, they made that decision about censorship inthe name of freedom of speech. For Google, the hacking is the last straw and, combined to increased restrictions on freedom over the past year, constitutes too serious an attack on human rights for Google to carry on business in those conditions.
But if today Google acts as a spokesman for freedom of speach, it has not always been so and four years ago, when Google.cn was launched, they didnot jump as high on the moral ground of the debate. It seems they are now playing the innocence card but they knew pretty well what they were getting into.Indeed, Google’s entry on the Chinese market in 2006 was subject to conditions: to operate on the chinese soil, Google had to submit to censorship of sensitive material, from pornographic content to more politicized ones. When such controversialsubjects as Tianamen Square or the riots in Tibet are searched, users should be presented with results that lead nowhere or fail to load. At the time, the decision attracted a firestorm of criticism and concern over Google’s dedication to freedom of information. The company’s response was that it believed the benefits of increased access to information outweighed their discomfort in agreeing tocensor some results. For others, however, it was the benefits of increased cash on a potential market of over 350 million web users that outweighed any discomfort Google could face. Years later the debate on inferred motives, whether they be humanitarian or financial, collective or individual, is raised again.
When it engaged in China, Google had promised to monitor conditions and reconsiderits approach if necessary. However we can question why it took the management so long to realize their company was operating on a market dominated by political issues and authorities. As an expert of the political effects of the Internet coined, « it’s like they thought they were dealing with the goverrnment of Switzerland and suddenly realised it was China.
China, which has made control of theinternet a high policy priority as it fears it as a threat to its monopoly on information and a liberating force for its citiezens. To ensure state and political security on the internet, the government resorts to information surveillance, blocking and public opinioin analysis and monitoring. Sites and social networking services hosted overseas like U Tube and Twitter were blocked and many...
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