2010-01-13

Google Stands Up

This week I've been preparing for a role in a performance of The Soldier's Tale. The theatre piece, drawn from a European folk tale, shows a person of essentially good character making an ill-advised pact with the devil. He soon learns that the acquisition of wealth is cold comfort for the price he pays. He learns that he can get out of the deal, but only by renouncing everything of the devil's he has acquired.

Interestingly, the news this week has presented a real-life enactment of the tale. Google, in party by taking the measure of the devil with which it has been dealing, has decided it doesn't like the deal, either.

Google has announced a 'new approach to China'. In the process it publicly exposes a rampant amount of spying and hacking originating inside that country. The spying is intensive and is not limited to users of Google. The Internet giant has announced that it will no longer filter news content in Google.cn as China's government has insisted. If it cannot offer the kind of open internet service in China that it does elsewhere, Google will leave.

Google opened Google.cn in 2006. Like other search engines operating in China, the service proved spectacularly unhelpful to China's citizens in locating a number of sites available to most people around the world. These include weblogs such as this one, social sites such as Twitter, human rights organisations such as Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders and Freedom House, and articles on subjects such as dissent inside China, Tibetan and Taiwanese nationalism, the Dalai Lama, the Falun Gong, and human rights topics in general. A search on the 1989 student protests at Tiananmen Square produces around 442,000 results on Google.uk; it produced no results at all on Google.cn.

But it will now. Google is now having discussions with the Chinese government about how to operate a more open service within the country. If the results of those talks are not fruitful, Google is ready to leave.

The move places China's government in a dilemma. The Communist Party that rules China is committed to filtering news that reaches citizens. But it is also committed to, and depends on, attracting foreign investment. It is especially eager to attract technology and communications companies. It is now faced with making a substantial shift in its approach to speech rights or, thanks to Google's exposure, establishing itself more prominently in the yes of the world as an enemy of privacy and the free exchange of information, even for people who live beyond China's borders.

A dilemma also faces Microsoft and Yahoo, two companies who have likewise cooperated on censoring content in oppressive ways in order to gain market share in China. They are now being called upon not only to defend their willingness to help an oppressive regime oppress its citizens for the sake of profit, but to explain what they intend to do to guarantee privacy for members' accounts.

BBC News presents the news concisely.

CNet offers a detailed look at how cyber-attacks operate and the implications of Google's move.

Guardian UK examines the story in a series of articles.

Taiwan News offers observations by a dissident now working in Taiwan.

Reprinted below is the complete text of the announcement as it appears in Google's official blog.

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Conductor's Notebook

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