Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Google Goes Do or Die in China

There was some major news from Google today: Google will stop censoring search results in China, even if it means the death of Google in China.

They have not quite turned off the censor switch yet. An image search for Tiananmen Square on Google.cn still shows censored results, as compared to the same search on Google.com.

But Google has declared unequivocally that they will no longer censor in China, as written by David Drummond, Google's Chief Legal Officer:
We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.

What prompted this change?
Google discovered that in mid-December of 2009, there was a highly sophisticated cyber attack on Google's infrastructure, whose sole purpose was to hack into the GMail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. Common sense might tell us that these attacks must have come from the Chinese government. After all, who else would specifically target only the Chinese human rights activists? But Google must have information which strongly suggests that the Chinese government perpetrated this attack. That is why Google sees no point in cooperating with the Chinese government any more and censoring search results. If the attack had come from any other source, why would Google pick a fight with the Chinese government?

It should come as no surprise to Google that it came down to this. If you decide to play with the dragon, prepare to have your hand burnt one day or the other. But if a burnt hand is what it takes for Google to stop censoring search results in China, so be it. This is a welcome development.

However, a few questions persist: When will Google stop censoring in other countries? Will it take a cyber attack by the government of a country for Google to stop censoring in that country? What about not censoring because it's the right thing to do? Because that is what freedom of speech is all about?

Google does different levels of censorship in different countries. Yes, Google censors in India also.

There are few forums where the average Indian can participate in political discourse. The political blogosphere in India is still fledgling. Indians have very few alternative sources for news, other than the mainstream media. As such, it is extremely important that Indians have uncensored access to online discussion boards, mailing lists and blogs. The Indian public is still at the beginning stages of Internet connectivity. It is very disappointing that Google agrees to censorship of information on its web properties in India at this initial stage of the Indian Internet infancy. The irony is that, unlike in China, Google need not even die in India if it refuses to censor itself. It will have the support of the majority of the Indian public and will be hailed as a hero.

Update on 1/13/2010: Lots of interesting updates in this Arstechnica article. Most interesting among them:
Why only subject lines? If the attackers could get access to subject lines, why couldn't they access entire e-mails? Apparently because the hackers infiltrated automated systems set up to provide such information to law enforcement in the US and elsewhere. (Getting access to the contents of e-mail messages is harder under US law than getting access to addresses, subject lines, etc, which are considered to be on the "outside of the envelope" and subject to pen register searches).

According to a Macworld source, "Right before Christmas, it was, 'Holy s—, this malware is accessing the internal intercept [systems].'" Later, Google cofounder Larry Page supervised a Christmas Eve meeting on the security breach.

Fun fact: Google's security team managed to penetrate one of the servers being used by the attackers, which was how the full extent of the attack—more than 30 companies—was revealed.

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