Skepticism, Excitement and Fear: A Scan of Reactions to Google’s New Approach to China

A lot of smart people have shared thoughts on Google’s announcement that 1) it may pull out of China, and 2) that its data– our data– may have been compromised. Here’s a quick run-through of posts that caught my eye this week, ranging from Evgeny Morozov’s skepticism about Google’s motives to Ethan Zuckerman’s and Jonathan Zittrain excitement at the prospect Google engineers  building anti-censorship tools, to Ron Deibert and Rafal Rohozinski’s fear that “the once unified global Internet space will begin a process of disintegration.”

Siva Vaidhyanathan

This is not Google standing up for free speech. …. It’s about Google standing up against attacks…. the censorship aspect of this conflict is a side show. censorship has never mattered — not because of market share. Anyone who cared could reach by using proxy servers or VPN. Millions do….Criticisms of Google for its China policies never made sense to me. They only make sense if you think companies should not be trying to make money….Google should be applauded for taking a big risk here. But it’s not egalitarian at all. It’s about exposing China’s nasty cyber attacks, general corporate insecurity (threatening the Cloud move, among many other things), and Google’s lack of patience with China’s habit of blocking YouTube and Blogger.

Ethan Zuckerman:

I suspect we want to hold Google to a higher standard because they’ve put forth an informal motto: “Don’t be evil”…The move to leave the Chinese market may be an example of Google returning to its core values and demonstrating an unwillingness to compromise….By (obliquely) accusing the Chinese government of involvement in corporate espionage and challenging the government to shut the company down for providing uncensored search, “Google has taken the China corporate communications playbook, wrapped it in oily rags, doused it in gasoline and dropped a lit match on it.” (Those evocative words arefrom top Chinablogger Imagethief.) This isn’t a temporary strategic retreat – this is a retreat where you detonate the bridges behind you….A Google-backed anticensorship system (perhaps operated in conjunction with some of the smart activists and engineers who’ve targeted censorship in Iran and China?) would be massively more powerful (and threatening!) than the systems we know about today. These tools would have a built-in market – the millions of users who were enjoying Google’s tools from within China – and could radically change the landscape of the internet freedom field. An emphasis on internet freedom tools would allow Google to engage with a smaller Chinese market, but would allow them to maintain a toe in the waters while maintaining a stance of disengagement with the Chinese government.

Jonathan Zittrain:

My hope, and expectation, is that Google engineers who might have been a bit halfhearted about implementing censorship mandates in could be full-throttle in coming up with ways for Google to be viewed despite any network interruptions between site and user…. Google would have nothing more to lose, so could pioneer some new approaches.  Circumvention of filtering (or other blockages, for that matter) tends to happen on the user side of things, seeking out proxies like the Tor network, or….Drawing a line is both the right move and a brilliant one.  It helps realign Google’s business with its ethos, and masterfully recasts the firm in a place it will feel more comfortable: supporting the free and open dissemination of information rather than metering it out according to undesirable (and capricious) government standards.

EFF’s Danny O’Brien:

It will be a long time before we understand all the ramifications of Google’s decision to cease censoring their Chinese services — and the cyber-attack on their corporate and user data that prompted that change of heart…. Security experts have long warned that systems designed to make compliance with lawful interception more convenient can also create security vulnerabilities of their own. By providing an attractive one stop shop for outside attackers, surveillance compliance systems by their very nature often override the secure compartmentalization of data

Evgeny Morozov:

Their supposed naivete about whom they were dealing with just doesn’t sound very convincing. Are we really supposed to believe that, until they experienced cyberattacks on the email accounts of the Chinese human rights activists, they thought that their counterparts in the Chinese government were all good and well-meaning chaps who would never think of such a thing?…If the logic is that Google can’t guarantee the security of its Chinese users, well, they are really in bad shape and should close their shop everywhere. If, on the other hand, they completely changed their minds about the ethics of their involvement in China and now think that a little bit of censorship is evil in itself and clashes with Google’s mission, then what’s the point of framing it as a cybersecurity issue?

Douglas Rushcoff:

Google’s actions just don’t add up….Why the sudden wakeup call? Iit’s because Google realizes it is in bed with the bad guys. It has supported the actions of a regime that eventually turned on its online facilitator, Google. So Google is saying it is fine with repressive regimes as long as they don’t repress Google without the company’s knowledge. No, that’s even too stupid for a corporate communications department to imply. Which, to me, means there’s more going on. The first and most likely possibility is that Google is attempting to create a distraction. From what? From the fact that some Chinese hackers broke into their servers and gained access to what was supposed to be secure private and corporate data. Get it? That means none of our stuff on Google’s servers is safe.

Jeff Jarvis:

Zeit Online calls Google a quasi-state — in a post under the headline “The Google Republic” …The internet is the New World and Google is its biggest colonizer: the sun never sets on Google….[O]n the internet, new states form across interests, ignoring borders. Those interests can be business — and we’ve seen what look like business-states before — but also causes, principles, and dangers (e.g., Al Qaeda). Interest-states will gain more power and that power will come from nations. [W]e are beginning to witness the emergence of new and competitive interest-states.

Ron Deibert and Rafal Rohozinski:

Censorship, surveillance and information warfare are part of an emerging storm in cyberspace in which countries, corporations and individuals are vying for control….For years, cyberespionage activities that target groups and countries of strategic interest to Beijing, such as the GhostNet network we uncovered, have been tracked back to mainland China. The fact that these activities have not been proved to have been carried out by the Chinese government speaks to the success of strategies that rely on privateering and outsourcing to criminal hacker groups, thereby shielding authorities from any direct blame. Similar strategies are said to be carried out in Russia, Iran and elsewhere….

How China responds to Google will have far-reaching implications for the future of cyberspace….it could block Google from indexing Chinese domain or IP space altogether, shutting Chinese information space off to users of Google. Should that happen, the once unified global Internet space will begin a process of disintegration as countries define their own sovereign clouds….How our leaders respond is equally important. While Washington and other capitals realize the importance of cyberspace for the projection of military and intelligence power, they’ve been slow to recognize its importance to the advance of democratic values worldwide and as a global asset to be protected in its own right.


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