News hit the techiverse today that Google may be shutting down Google.cn in response to a “massive infrastructure attack” on its servers in December. Within a half hour of the news breaking on the Google Blog, the tech community rallied. So far Mashable, Search Engine Land and other blogs have the biggest stories – but admirably, the New York Times and USA Today also have good stories up.
All of them focus on one thing; because of these attacks, Google is no longer willing to censor its Google.cn search results and, because of the way law works in that country, might be forced to shut down its operations in China, including Google.cn and its Chinese offices [from the Googleblog]. This is a perfectly valid thing to worry over; Google is big business on its own, and the shift in power creates a vacuum that its Chinese competitor, Baidu, is already moving into – according to Reuters, Baidu’s stock is rising while Google’s is fallig, just because of the announcement of the possibility of El Goog’s moving out [from Reuters]. Of course, the New York Times story about this “Google e-Mail breach” and Mashable echo these trajectories. The USA Today story being tossed about is actually about Google’s apology to Chinese authors regarding its book digitizing, and actually focuses on French President Satrkosy’s insular attitude and protection of its culture.
Again, all valid angles, but there’s something bigger going on here. Here are a few sentiments from Twitter within minutes of the story breaking:
- @eston – Friend in Shanghai: “Wow, did the Chinese govt just block access to Google? I’m getting GFW’d.” ( @scobleizer, know ne1 that can conf/deny?)
- @scobleizer – I am meeting with @sagiraju & @prabhe Their reaction to Google news? “Google always does what is right.” “They still act like a startup.”
- @marshallk – if Google is just using censorship as excuse to fight corp espionage, that’s super cynical & they’d deserve no praise but effect same
- @stevenjayl – After GOOG, will US gov stand up for US biz against Chinese IP attacks and thefts? How about some “21st Century Statecraft”?
Can you see it? There’s not just business sentiment here. There’s cultural sentiment. And it’s a big, big deal.
Google, like any business dealing in the grey area of international culturally affecting commerce, has no choice but to stay out of human rights debates until they directly affect its business. This did. For whatever reason, someone hit Google, and these other businesses, looking for information about Chinese human rights activists. Regardless of how much or little information they actually gleaned, Google has no recourse but to take drastic action. This much is a given. What isn’t is how much impact this will have elsewhere in the technology sphere.
What Google is doing is necessary, but it’s also getting some press for appearing to be a humanitarian action. Regardless of their previous cooperation with Chinese censors, and their continued cooperation with censorship in other locales, this visible blow struck against the proliferation of cultural insulation looks really good on El Goog. It’s natural – we see a bully knock over the little kids, and when someone – anyone – steps up and says “I’m not putting up with this any more” even if the display amounts to taking their ball and going home, we applaud.
But what if no one else does it?
This is a potentially huge place to gain ground. What if Microsoft steps up and has Bing remove all censoring leans globally? What if Yahoo! shuts down everywhere that refuses total egalitarianism of information? Take it the other way: What if Google turns this into a massive initiative, and everyone else… Just fails to.
Who are we going to back? Certainly not China, with its massive record of oppression. Google? Sure, if this is anything more than just an espionage reaction. Anyone else? Maybe. If they step up.
When you don’t control your PR, you can’t make the play companies have in the past and say you’re “looking into” something for months on end, and expect people to take the pill lying down. You need to react, and react fast. If not, the research geeks activate, and your thinly veiled attempts at grey-speech are whipped off like the curtain from the Wizard of Oz.
So is Google making a play against censorship, or defending its property?
Will other information giants step up and mimic the action?
And, moreover, aside from the human rights issues, does it matter here in North America?
Photo by Bernt Rostad.