upload: The Great Firewall of China

Google, China, and the race to evil

Feature by Alex Cole | 27 Jan 2010
  • Google.cn memorial

Usually the story goes like this: mega-powerful company which owns the government and your whole life is brought down by a plucky but determined band of rebels, and we cheer as they say that freedom is more important than a company's bottom line.

So why does it seem like everyone's rooting for the big company this time?

Last month, Google uncovered a sophisticated hacking assault on their Gmail service, and found it, along with some 30 other attacks on major Silicon Valley mega-corps, came from inside the Chinese government. Their initial statement that they were "re-considering" their relationship with China was at first taken to be about censorship, but it quickly became clear there was more to Google.cn's potential demise than anyone was openly saying.

Censorship has been a longstanding tradition in China, and foreign businesses that sought to expand their trade there were expected to play ball. Google, along with Microsoft, Yahoo and many other juggernauts, have all cooperated with the Chinese government in the past. "Properly guiding Internet opinion is a major measure for protecting Internet information security," said Wang Chen, of the Information Ministry. But now Google is saying they won’t comply with the censorship any further, and even postponed releasing new phones there.

While China’s search industry won’t exactly be crippled if Google.cn pulls out (China’s own government-run search engine, Baidu, controls the bulk of searching in the region), it makes other cooperative companies look a bit subservient. Yahoo has previously provided the email passwords of Chinese activists, and most search engine companies have helped keep words like Falun Gong and Tiananmen Square utterly unsearchable. But the impact of Google pulling out of China, if indeed they actually go through with it, will only be felt if other companies follow suit.

Google’s semi-official motto is “don’t be evil,” and many have accused the company of violating it by participating in the censorship. Though Google reversal was sparked more by the alleged government attacks than outrage over the Great Firewall of China, it still may be a sign the internet megacorp is finally showing signs of enforcing real net neutrality. Google certainly isn't the plucky hero struggling against all odds, but when you consider this company is the brain child of two twenty-something nerds, it's not that much of a stretch.

And it may send a message to countries like Australia, where websites are protesting their government's own block list , that government control isn’t what it used to be.