Internet users biggest losers in Google standoff

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 January, 2010, 12:00am

As the saga of Google vs Beijing continues to unfold, the central government appears to be the sole loser at first glance. By almost all accounts, this is one of its biggest public relations disasters in recent years.

Ever since the internet search giant threatened to pull out of China on Tuesday, citing censorship and cyber-attacks on the e-mail accounts of mainland activists, Beijing is facing a rising chorus of criticism from a broad spectrum of foreigners including US government officials and lawmakers, technology professionals, human rights groups and the Western media.

The announcement suddenly vaulted Google into the role of moral crusader, placing internet freedom and security over commercial interests and trumpeting free speech and human rights.

It has also elicited strong feelings among the mainland's 384 million internet users, with some users laying flowers at Google's Beijing headquarters as a sign of support.

Apparently caught off-guard and seething with anger behind closed doors, mainland officials have tried to appear calm, playing down Google's threat and its implications, ordering the state media to tone down coverage and even refraining from naming Google in its initial responses.

But as made clear by Wang Chen - head of the State Council Information Office, a key agency responsible for internet regulation on the mainland - internet companies must abide by Chinese law and increase their scrutiny of information that could threaten social stability.

This means mainland authorities are very unlikely to yield to Google's demands that its search engine results be unfiltered, let alone the broader demands by others of internet freedom and free speech.

The reason is simple: mainland officials view the internet as another domain for ideological control and a battleground against Western influence, so Google is very likely to exit the mainland in the next few months.

To a large extent, the saga of Google vs Beijing is a proxy for the struggle between the Chinese and US governments, with Washington's prompt backing for Google certainly giving that impression. Sino-US relations are heading into choppier waters this year, with differences over human rights, the value of the yuan, global warming and arms sales to Taiwan trumping their common ground.

Indeed, the Google episode will surely be a hot topic in the dialogue on human rights scheduled next month. In an even broader context, the tensions have reflected Western countries' increasing uneasiness towards the rise of China, which has a sharply different economic model and ideology.

But ganging up on the mainland in this fashion is very likely to produce mixed results, as history has shown.

Some Western media reports that suggest the Google incident could make other foreign companies reassess doing business on the mainland because of human rights concerns or unfair treatment are thought-provoking but a bit unrealistic. Following that logic, Rio Tinto had a stronger case to disengage from China when mainland securities agents arrested Stern Hu, its top iron ore negotiator on the mainland, and three other mainland employees on suspicion of stealing state secrets - a charge Rio has vehemently denied. But Rio has since been doing roaring business with China, selling more iron ore to mainland steel mills.

Google has insisted that its change of heart on the mainland is about internet freedom and security, taking the high moral ground. But the fact remains that four years after launching the domestic website, it still lags behind Baidu, although its market share rose from 22.8 per cent in 2006 to 35.6 per cent in the fourth quarter of last year while Baidu's share fell from nearly 70 per cent to 58 per cent. As China business revenue accounts for a tiny fraction of Google's total of US$17.5 billion made last year, its pull-out would have little impact on its bottom line.

What's more, the hacking attempts on its servers originating from the mainland, breaking into private Gmail accounts, have been cited as the final straw.

But this part of Google's argument may be its weakest. As Steve Ballmer, chief executive of Microsoft, rightly pointed out, cyber-attacks are a way of life for internet companies. 'We are attacked every day from all parts of the world, and I think everyone else is, too,' he told Reuters last week.

Indeed, I would think that being attacked should not be an excuse for pulling out, particularly for an internet giant like Google, which has thousands of top-notch engineers on the payroll who could certainly find the loopholes and build better defences against the hackings. Pulling out hardly diminishes them.

Google may have taken a principled stand, but its likely exit means that not only has it given up to its competitors, but also that the mainland's internet users, including this writer, will become the biggest losers in this saga, losing something that has already become an integral part of our daily lives if Beijing decides to block or make it difficult to access Google's international search engine.