The meaning of Google vs. China

Cyber attacks are becoming more common, or at least are receiving more public attention. They range from the loan hacker to the highly organized and orchestrated. Google’s problems in China are in that sense just the most public to date.

There can be no doubt that state agencies in countries with the capacity to organize cyber-spying are all developing their capabilities in this arena, if for no other reason than preparing for the worst-case scenario, a cyber-war. In Western countries it may be assumed, perhaps wrongly, that in cases where the state is behind cyber-spying it happens in a pretty much coordinated manner, through the auspices of one or two specialist agencies. But it is equally likely that in other countries, China quite possibly, it may take on a less coordinated character. That is to say, different agencies and state bodies may to an extent be ‘doing their own thing’. This would be a logical follow-on from the well-known turf battles that happen between state agencies, state-owned companies, or even between central and provincial authorities in China.

The argument that where the rule of law is stronger the maverick use of cyber-spying will be less may be true only in degree. It would be naïve to think that state agencies always act within the law, or only bend the rule of law so far when the chips are down. This is especially the case where, as in the case of the Internet, there are no global laws to parallel the global reach of the Net.

So was the reaction of Google a sensible one? The argument – and there are many appearing – that it was premeditated and a planned response by Google to cut their losses in their battle against Baidu does not ring true. Google, like all foreign companies in China, could consider themselves well positioned just by being popular, and as everyone knows, China is never going to be a short term play.

More convincing is the view that the business credibility of Internet-based service providers ultimately rests upon their ability and commitment to treat their customer’s information and personal details confidential. Western countries in particular have freedom of information acts and data protection acts to safeguard citizen’s rights, and increasingly the law courts are upholding these rights and taking them seriously. The damage done to Yahoo’s reputation when they released confidential information about a Chinese dissident who was eventually jailed in China was serious, and remains in the consciousness of many users to this day.

Private companies are in a bind over China, and always will be. They are often in a bind in Western countries, but the consequences are rarely as overwhelming as the thought that they may get kicked out of China. On the other hand, despite China being the elephant in the room, serious money remains outside China in the global marketplace. And rather than wait to get in through China’s closed door, it may make better sense to invite Chinese citizens to venture out of the house a bit. As Deng Xiaoping once commented after the Open Door policy of 1978 – the last door to be opened would be the door to information. Well, most of the other doors are now at least ajar.

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