Winner of Google-China feud is - India
By Peter Lee

Google isn't doing well in China, and President Barack Obama isn't doing well in the United States. These twin realities have helped trigger a high-profile confrontation with China.

On January 12, Google responded to a sophisticated hack of its Google.cn servers, apparently emanating from within China, with the threat that it would stop filtering its Google.cn search results in compliance with the demands of the Chinese government, even if that meant Google would have to close its China operations.

Google's high-profile response will contribute, perhaps inadvertently, to fraught broader US-China relations in the coming

  

year. Inevitably, the attractiveness of China's emerging rival, India, as a market for Google and ally for the United States will enter into the mix.

In contrast to its also-ran status behind Baidu in China for search engines, the travails of its Youtube service as a frequently-blocked avenue for dissent inside China and the absence of a social networking option inside the People's Republic of China), Google enjoys an overwhelming market share for its search engine, media and networking business in India.

In India, 89% of Internet searches go through Google, 68% of India's social networking occurs on Google's Orkut service, and 82% of media is viewed on Youtube, according to the Internet marketing research company comscore.com. Astonishingly, Indian users spend almost 30% of their entire online time on Google sites - three times the world's average.

Ironically - or, perhaps, hypocritically, given its stalwart anti-censorship position in China - Google censors its search engine results in India to conform to Indian laws (for instance, banning search results for pre-natal sex testing) [1] and cooperates with Indian police to identify political malcontents for arrest in response to their Orkut postings. [2]

Google's high-profile demolition of its relationship with China may not simply be a matter of outrage at the hacking of pro-democracy e-mails.

Bruce Schneier, a well-known US cyber security expert, made waves in the IT community with an op-ed on CNN on January 23 [3] asserting that the e-mail hacker had obtained the e-mail information by accessing Google's own internal intercept system - a program designed to enable Google to collect user information in response to US government demands.

If this is the case, the e-mail hack is more of an embarrassment for Google than anything else: an indication that Google had not only created the application to enable governments to spy on e-mail accounts, it had done such a poor job of protecting it that it could be hijacked by malicious parties.

The actual significance of the e-mail hack is open to question.

Only a handful of accounts were accessed, and apparently yielded no more information than the kind that the US government is supposed to get in response to a subpoena: account information and subject line. No message text was compromised, according to Google.

In a January 21 conference call with financial analysts, Google executive Eric Schmidt stated that Google wasn't even sure that the e-mail intrusion was related to the larger hack, now known as the Aurora exploit.

Aurora was a sophisticated, simultaneous industry-wide penetration of sensitive computers at Google, Adobe and perhaps more than two dozen other Silicon Valley companies, possibly a "zero day" attack intended to exploit an intrinsic weakness in Internet Explorer (IE) for maximum effect before the attack itself compelled Microsoft to issue a patch to plug the leak.

The target of this multi-front blitzkrieg was apparently a quest for IT's crown jewels - source code.

This cyber-sparring between Western high-tech companies and Chinese hackers is a historical albeit worrisome feature of the complicated relationship between US IT companies and the large Chinese market they hope to serve.

The large scale and synchronized timing of the assault has caused the target companies to point the finger, albeit gingerly and with caveats, directly at the Chinese government.

It is an open question whether the scale of the attack reflects Chinese government involvement, or an awareness of the transient nature of IE vulnerability and the resultant desire of networked private or semi-private Chinese hackers to exploit the flaw massively before it could be discovered and repaired.

Another anxious aspect was added to the case as rumors spread that Google suspected that a Chinese employee of its organization inside China may have facilitated Aurora's intrusion onto a computer with administrative privileges, thereby opening significant domains of the Google realm to inspection and downloading by the hackers.

However, Google took an important and inflammatory step of escalating its conflict with China by using the e-mail hack against democracy advocates to wrap itself in a human-rights flag. As a result, its threat to stop censoring its Google.cn search engine in retaliation for the hacks has become a cause celebre for free speech and Internet-rights activists.

This cause has been taken up by the US government.

The Obama administration is smarting from its devastating political defeat in the Massachusetts senate election, a defeat that has removed the Democrat Party's supermajority and put it on track for possible electoral catastrophe at November's mid-term congressional elections - unless it can rally its disaffected base of liberal and progressive voters. Thus, Obama's government is set to embark on a populist anti-banking campaign inside the US and a crowd-pleasing anti-China campaign internationally.

Google's emergence as a champion of Internet openness is, in a certain sense, rather ironic. Its data-collection capabilities extend from cookies to click-logging, which involves the recording of a user's search terms for two years and has aroused the concern of the European Union, the US government and privacy advocates. The tools are likely the envy of China's busy public and Internet security monitors.

Google is no stranger to cooperation with security services in the United States as well as abroad.

Google has an intimate relationship with the US intelligence community. It acquired one of its signature services - Google Earth - from the Central Intelligence Agency's acknowledged not-for-profit venture capital arm, In-Q-Tel. As part of a one-hand-washes-the-other synergism between the private and public sector, In-Q-Tel's director of technology assessment, Rob Painter, moved to Google in 2005 to become chief technologist for federal business. His main job: selling Google Earth imagery back to the government.

The company itself is secretive not only about the precious algorithm that drives its world-beating search engine, but about everything else. Despite enjoying the benefits of being a publicly-traded company, its ownership is structured to enable close control by its founding members. It accumulates gigantic amounts of data concerning its users - including information from the over 75 billion Google searches, 10 billion Youtube views and hundreds of millions of Doubleclick ad page views per month they undertake - so it can target them with advertising tailored to their needs and weaknesses.

In an unintentionally ironic twist, Google chief executive officer Eric Schmidt turned the company's ballyhooed motto - Don't Be Evil - into a warning to Google's users in an interview with CNBC in December 2009. [4]

"If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place," Schmidt said. "If you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines - including Google - do retain this information for some time and it's important, for example, that we are all subject in the United States to the Patriot Act and it is possible that all that information could be made available to the authorities."

Google is committed to an open Internet because this provides the maximum leverage for its competitive advantage as the pre-eminent search engine. Google also relies on the open Internet to allow it to collect the full spectrum of data that allows it to characterize and exploit the monetary potential of its users.

The one area in which Google cannot tolerate openness is in the one area the hackers targeted: the secrets of its search engine.

It would not be surprising if Google decided to make a public issue of the December 2009 intrusions in order to get the Chinese government to crack down on hackers within its borders, be they public or private actors.

Perhaps it discounted the risk of Chinese displeasure with the rationalization that, ultimately, Google's future probably lies in India, not China. 

t doesn't appear that Google stirred the China pot with very much forethought. According to an inside account [5], following an urgent Christmas Eve confab convened by Google founder Larry Page, the situation percolated for three weeks before Google made its shock announcement on January 12.

Google's industry and international associates were apparently not in the loop.

Bill Gates of Microsoft and John Chambers, chief executive officer of Cisco Systems, went public with statements dismissing

 

Google's sensitivities on the Aurora hack.

India was unprepared to do anything more than respond with vague generalities concerning the openness of its Internet and its suitability as a partner for Google.

One may wonder if Google anticipated the diplomatic firestorm it would ignite by going public with its conflict with China.

In the January 21 conference call, Google's Eric Schmidt stated his desire to remain in China. Indeed, there are reports of negotiations concerning modifications to the filtering restrictions under which Google search engine works in China.

Even if Google embarked on this path with the limited objective of leveraging international indignation over the hack into concessions by the Chinese authorities to relax the Google.cn search engine filtering regime in a meaningful way (thereby earning Google human-rights credibility and positioning Google.cn as a service returning superior in-China results compared to its nemesis, Baidu), that ship has probably sailed.

Simply walking back the tense situation and negotiating some kind of symbolic, face-saving compromise on filtering of search-engine results may also be out of reach, thanks to the rapid escalation of political rhetoric by the Obama administration.

In a speech in Washington on January 21, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton planted the US government flag as champion of the "right to connect" to an open Internet. Echoing the phrase of British statesman Winston Churchill that announced the beginning of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West, she talked of an "information curtain" (rather than an iron curtain) descending across the world at the behest of totalitarian regimes.

Clearly, the lengthy speech was prepared long in advance to burnish America's information age luster. Equally clear was the fact that one paragraph was inserted about the Google case at the last minute.

Clinton issued a call that the Chinese government investigate the Google case "transparently", implying in effect that China had a responsibility to mollify foreign stakeholders based on Google's so far undocumented public assertions:

And we look to the Chinese authorities to conduct a thorough review of the cyber intrusions that led Google to make its announcement. And we also look for that investigation and its results to be transparent.

Open-society advocates lauded the tough American approach, even as IT professionals pointed out the awkward fact that the US itself embargoes Internet software - including Google's Chrome browser - to deny the benefits of Internet openness to users within Syria, Sudan and other countries.

The Chinese government - which has labored mightily to create an international regime in which China is an acknowledged superpower and not the target of condescending and embarrassing demands for transparency - responded with predictable heat.

China's Ministry of Foreign Relations denounced Clinton's call, stating, "We urge the US to respect facts and stop attacking China under the excuse of the so-called freedom of Internet."

China's Global Times accused the United States of "information imperialism".

According to an Associated Press report [7], the US government seems willing to up the ante:

Washington, meanwhile, carried its message on Internet freedom directly to Chinese bloggers. The US Embassy in Beijing and consulates in Shanghai and Guangzhou hosted Internet-streamed discussions with members of the blogging community on Friday afternoon - the latest example of Washington's outreach to Chinese bloggers as a way of spreading its message.

The bloggers met with US diplomats from the political, economic and public affairs sections, who held discussions and answered questions about Clinton's speech. The meetings were similar to a session organized during Obama's visit to China in November.

It would appear that nothing good for US-China relations will come of this. Perhaps the United States doesn't care too much.

In a widely-linked comment entitled "The Google news : China enters its Bush-Cheney era" [8], the Atlantic Monthly's James Fallows saw the Google case as a regrettable hardening of Chinese attitudes towards the US just as America was entering the halcyon period of the Obama administration.

It is more likely that the Obama administration, with the world financial system stabilized and Chinese goodwill a less vital commodity than before, and its own political fortunes in jeopardy, has found it politically expedient and feasible to harden towards China.

The fallout will perhaps be an accelerated slide by Google - and the United States - into the Indian camp.

Notes
1.) Indian Politician Wants Ban On Google India Website, Dec 4, 2009, labnol.org
2.) Google and India Test the Limits of Liberty, Jan 4, 2010, online.wsj.com).
3.) US enables Chinese hacking of Google, edition.cnn.com
4.) Google chief: Only miscreants worry about net privacy, Dec 7, 2009, theregister.co.uk.
5.) Google attack part of widespread spying effort, Jan 13, 2010, computerworld.com)
6.) Remarks on Internet Freedom, Jan 21, 2010, state.gov 7.) China Slams Clinton's Internet Speech: 'Information Imperialism', Jan 22, 2010, huffingtonpost.com)
8.) The Google news: China enters its Bush-Cheney era,Jan 12, 2010, jamesfallows.theatlantic.com)


Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.