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Google's diplomatic alliance with US carries risks

Google Inc's mastery of Internet search technology is unrivaled, but the high-tech pioneer is in uncharted territory as it finds itself embroiled in US diplomatic spats with China and Iran.

india Updated: Feb 16, 2010 23:12 IST

Google Inc's mastery of Internet search technology is unrivaled, but the high-tech pioneer is in uncharted territory as it finds itself embroiled in US diplomatic spats with China and Iran.

Google and the Obama administration are now allies as both push for Internet freedom and an end to censorship -- the Internet giant giving Washington a high-tech boost as it seeks to claim the moral high ground in the digital era.

But analysts say the fragile alliance could be put to new tests as their interests diverge on intellectual copyright and user privacy, particularly for users Washington may deem national security risks.

Google has become a cause celebre in Washington because its business provides people with information access -- whether through Internet search, email or instant messaging -- making the company a de facto threat for many repressive governments, said DJ Peterson, director of corporate advisory services for the Eurasia Group, a risk consultancy firm.

And Google's vocal position on issues like Internet freedom has made the Mountain View, California, company easy to single out -- for praise by the United States and criticism by foreign governments.

"Google has become a politicized brand," Peterson said. "In some ways you could say that Google is unique in its political exposure in places like Iran or China."

The US government has thus far been eager to claim an alliance with Google, Twitter, Facebook and others, saying the services they provide are all key to achieving US goals of greater democratic freedom.

"We're working with these companies in trouble spots around the world, trying to see how we can employ technology to solve local challenges before they become regional conflicts," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.

But for Google, balancing delicate foreign relations with its business and ethical priorities represents a growing challenge for a company that has often seemed primarily focused on the technology at the heart of its online business.

Google, which lists the phrase "Don't Be Evil" among its mottos, has only in recent years built a sizable presence in Washington to deal with public policy and regulatory issues.

"There's no international guy that sits in Mountain View," said one person close to the company, who described Google's approach to political matters affecting the company as de-centralized and collaborative, often involving everyone from the regional sales head to product managers.

Gonzalo Alonso, the former general manager for Spanish-speaking Latin America at Google, said the company is very focused on issues affecting its international operations, and that his duties often involved dealing with regional tax issues and Internet-related legislation.

But he noted that Google is still not as sophisticated as Microsoft Corp, for which he also previously worked, or companies in other industries like oil, when it comes to managing relations with foreign governments.

"We keep forgetting Google is a very young company and they keep on learning all the time," said Alonso. "The oil companies have been around for a hundred years. Google has been around for 10 years," he said.

Google declined to comment on its internal operations.

It hit the headlines again last week when it reported a sharp drop in email traffic on its Gmail service in Iran, and the Wall Street Journal said Tehran planned to permanently suspend the service as anti-government protests broke out anew.

The news followed Google's surprised announcement in January when it said it had detected sophisticated cyber attacks on its systems originating in China and declared that it was no longer willing to censor search results in the country as required by the Beijing government.

Its initial decision to self-censor searches on its website drew criticism from activists, who said the company was pandering to China's communist government at the expense of the country's 360 million Internet users.

Google has said it will hold talks with the Chinese government about search censorship, but that it could potentially have to shut down its China operations.

Google's announcement came just days before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a major speech on Internet freedom which forcefully argued that those who disrupt the free flow of information on the Internet should be condemned.

The State Department backed Google and demanded a Chinese explanation for the alleged hacking attacks, adding tensions to a Sino-US relationship already under strain over US arms sales to Taiwan and other issues.

But some note that while the partnership has thus far worked for both Washington and Google, it has also allowed the Chinese government to frame the argument as one against "information imperialism" -- a persuasive rallying cry across much of the developing world.

In the longer term, some analysts see dangers for both Google and the US government in working so closely together.

Google has staked out positions opposed to those of Washington on potential anti-counterfeiting legislation, which the company says could hurt Internet users' rights and innovation in the field.

It also could potentially run afoul of US interests on user privacy -- if Google users were of interest to US anti-terrorism or criminal investigators.

"Google's interests coincide in places with the US government, and diverge in places from the US government. They are not the same thing," said Rebecca Mackinnon, a fellow at the Open Society Institute who has written extensively about Chinese Internet censorship.

With most of the growth in online users now occurring outside of traditionally "Western" countries, Mackinnon said that Google faces interesting sovereignty questions.

"Google, if it wants to be globally credible, is not only going to have to protect users in China from state security there, but is also going to have to make users in the Middle East and Africa relatively comfortable that their information is not going to be turned over to the (US) Department of Homeland Security," she said.

Google's confrontation with China could be a taste of things to come. "Google, increasingly, is going to butt up against all kinds of governments," said Mackinnon.

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