Google Doesn’t Seem Entirely Candid on China Affair

James Fallows conducted a telephone interview with David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer, and posed a salient question that most of the business press has not bothered to ask.

Quoting from Fallows’ interview with Drummond:

I then asked Drummond about something that has always puzzled me. If the original occasion for the shift of policy was (as generally reported) a hacking episode, why did it lead to a change in the censorship policy? What’s the logical connection? He explained the reasoning in a way I hadn’t seen before.

The initial premise, that it all started from a hacking episode, is not quite right. We did have a hacking incident. Most hacking incidents that you see are freelancers — maybe government sponsored, maybe not. They are out there trying to steal intellectual property, make some money. Or they might just be hackers who want to damage something for whatever reason. That’s a fact of life that internet companies deal with all the time.

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. They tried to do that through Google systems that thwarted them. On top of that, there were separate attacks, many of them, on individual Gmail users who were political activists inside and outside China. There were political aspects to these hacking attacks that were quite unusual.

That was distasteful to us. It seemed to us that 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. It is all part of the same repressive program, from our point of view. We felt that we were being part of that.

That was the direct connection with the hacking incident. It wasn’t in isolation. Since the Beijing Olympics, our experience in China has gotten worse. Although we have gained market share, it has become more and more difficult for us to operate there. Particularly when it comes to censorship. We have had to censor more. More and more pressure has been put on us. It has gotten appreciably worse — and not just for us, for other internet companies too.

So we increasingly came to feel that the original premise of our entry into China was being undermined. We thought when we went in that we could help to open the country and things could get better by our being there. Things seemed to be getting worse.

Does that answer make sense? I’m not sure that it does. For one thing, it seems to conflict with what we already know.

Let’s begin with what Drummond says about the nature of the hack attack. He says it was “almost singularly focused on getting into Gmail accounts, specifically of human rights activists.”

Really? I have read multiple reports, including one today, that the attack perpetrated on Google was part of a broader cyber onslaught, called Operation Aurora, aimed at 30 or more U.S.-based companies. Moreover, the objective of the sophisticated, systematic raid wasn’t to crack activists’ email accounts, but to purloin intellectual property from the companies targeted, which included Juniper Networks, Intel, and Adobe, among others.

As McAfee CTO George Kurtz explained, “social footprinting” was a notable feature of the attacks. The attackers took special care to identify employees with access to source code or other intellectual property, then posed as social acquaintances of those employees to enlist them as unwitting accomplices to the thefts.

Perhaps Drummond is right, but most reports suggest that the assailants primarily were after intellectual property, and only secondarily interested in cracking the Gmail accounts of human-rights activists.

What else is wrong with Drummond’s answer? He appears hopelessly naive or disingenuous when says the hacks seemed “part of an overall system bent on suppressing expression.” What did he think the Chinese government represented? Sweetness and light? Freedom and liberty? Fun and frolic?

I think Google knew the beast long before these attacks, and that it was wiling to make accommodations and compromises to continue doing business there. Something else changed from the time Google set up business in China, back in 2006, to now. For whatever reason, Google doesn’t want us to know the whole story.

Nonetheless, Drummond hints at the bigger picture. He says “our experience in China has gotten worse,” and “it has become more and more difficult for us to operate there.” He also says censorship is the main issue for Google, but again I question the party line.

In search, Google is a distant second to Baidu in China. But we should understand that Google is not alone among Western Internet companies that have found China to deliver less than it promised as a market destination. Yahoo, eBay, and Microsoft flamed out or underachieved, and China’s authorities slammed the door shut on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube (now owned by Google).

Did these companies make missteps in their engagements with China? Absolutely. But it’s also true that the Chinese government has done them no favors, and that China, with its “indigenous innovation” policies, wants to create its own technology-sector powerhouses rather than play host to what it perceives as Western interlopers. And, yes, it’s also true that China’s rulers don’t embrace the freedom of expression that many of these companies and their services encourage.

In pursuing its industrial policies, China’s leadership has the support of China’s populace, which is, to a great degree, fiercely nationalistic. Chinese consumers will gravitate toward products and services provided by Chinese companies, not because the products or services are better — though that’s sometimes the case in that particular market — but because they’re Chinese.

Chinese distrust and fear of foreigners are powerful demagogic levers in the hands of China’s leaders. It’s a way for the leadership to make common cause with the masses, to divert focus to a perceived external threat, and to align to its own interests with those of the people. After all, Chinese companies that become market leaders, if only in China, will reflect glory upon the nation and the people.

So, in the context of China, Google confronted a market that was inordinately inhospitable to its charms, and Chinese agents that were trying to pilfer its crown jewels. Is it any wonder Google chose this moment, under these circumstances, as an occasion for introspection and a strategic change of tack?

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