Google stepped out of line on Tuesday. It unplugged itself from the Great Firewall of China and threatened to close shop rather than continue to support Beijing’s censorship policies. The provocation was an intrusion of its servers, with an unhealthy interest in the mail accounts of political activists, which was traced back to China.
Google’s reaction is a big deal because while MNCs everywhere rail at government restrictions, they support Beijing’s policies on bended knee. In China, government censorship has kept pace with the explosion in internet usage. Every internet company is another brick in the Great Firewall, a set of filters which blocks access to content challenging the party line, which Beijing fears may confuse its innocent citizenry.
But it’s a losing battle because the free speech movement has created a bouquet of internet services which bypass blockades. It would take a college kid about 15 minutes to learn the ropes and leapfrog the Great Firewall. So smart authoritarians now prefer to keep information flows open, and then tap them. The Google intrusion suggests that China is moving in this direction.
Beijing has been recruiting hackers to fight dissidents since the late 90s, when it was taken aback by their anger at the takeover of Hong Kong. In fact, one of the world’s first hacktivist groups was Chinese — the Hong Kong Blondes had presented their credentials to Beijing by dramatically shutting down a Chinese communications satellite.
When Google entered China in 2005, it earned brickbats for meekly supporting censorship. It even agreed to block YouTube, where videos critical of China are posted. Now, its offices are receiving bouquets, both real and virtual, for standing up to Beijing. The company’s informal motto is ‘Don’t be Evil’ and its co-founder and conscience-keeper Sergey Brin comes of Russian refugee stock. He would naturally support free speech, just as the émigré George Soros supports independent media in the former Soviet Bloc. But there were business motives at play, too. The Chinese search market is valued at about $1 billion, but Google has found it hard to compete with the local leader, Baidu. If it exits China on a free speech issue, its losses will be offset by the goodwill it earns globally.
Even so, it is quite remarkable that Google admitted to being hacked. Like rape, hacker attacks are under-reported for fear of losing face. Millions of dollars are stolen from the global banking system every year, but banks rarely report intrusions. They simply hike banking charges to cover the losses. Like China’s firewall, this policy of silence is out of sync with our times, when the right to know has become central.
Knowledge is power. ‘Google’ is the top new word of the decade. ‘Tweet’ was the top word of 2009. And incidentally, Google, the world’s biggest information retrieval system, could at some point acquire Twitter, the biggest real-time information exchange. These services are politically potent — the US government requested a rescheduling of Twitter’s maintenance downtime to keep dissidents online during the Iranian presidential elections last year. Governments, corporations and interest groups will always try to manipulate, seduce or bend them to their will. They will have to resist this, and the most powerful weapon in their hands is openness.
Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine.
The views expressed by the author are personal.