On January 12 Google claimed that hackers from China had attempted to break into its infrastructure, in order to access the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. Because of those hacks, along with other malware attacks on Gmail accounts and ongoing concerns about the Chinese government limiting free speech on the Web, Google said in its blog that it was “no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn” and that it would discuss with the Chinese government operating “an unfiltered search engine.” If unsuccessful, Google said that it might close down or cut back its operations in China.
It’s now over 6 weeks since Google’s original blog post, but there are no signs that the company has stopped censoring its search results in China – let alone shut down Google.cn.
Chinese Government Blamed
Immediately after Google’s post, reports circulated that the Chinese government was behind the attacks on Google and over 30 other companies. Security company Verisign iDefense claimed that the attacks came from either agents of the Chinese state, or those acting on their behalf.
According to a podcast from veteran East Asia correspondent for The World, Mary Kay Magistad, Google appeared to unblock search terms and content after their announcement – at least for a short time. She said that search results seemed unfiltered for about 3 hours and then “came and went” in an intermittent way, which she thought was because “China’s censors scrambled to keep up with Google changing the game.”
A New York Times report came out on January 18, claiming that “at least two foreign journalists living in Beijing have had their Google e-mail accounts hacked”. The Times also noted that several human rights advocates in China had their Gmail accounts compromised. Among those was Ai Weiwei, an artist and prominent blogger in China.
China Attacks “Irresponsible” Accusations
Despite so much media attention in the West, on February 9 we wrote that Google had not made any moves to withdraw its Chinese search operations. What’s more, censored results were still appearing on Google’s Chinese portal, Google.cn.
This week, Western media reported that U.S. authorities had tracked down the hacker who wrote the code behind the attacks on Google last month. However, he was not blamed for launching the attacks. The man was said to be a freelance security consultant with ties to the Chinese government and military.
These latest reports appear to have angered the Chinese government. According to Chinese news site Xinhua, China has denied government links to cyber attacks against Google. Xinhua quotes China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang as saying that the various accusations against China were “irresponsible and calculating.” The interpretation was slightly different in China Daily, which translated Qin Gang as saying that the accusations against China were “irresponsible and have ulterior motives.”
In an editorial, Xinhua editor Mu Xuequan adds, “The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and some other newspapers have published articles indicating that cyber attacks targeting Google and several other U.S. companies were from China. Such allegations are arbitrary and biased.”
According to the Wall St. Journal, Google is about to “resume discussions” with the Chinese government.
Conclusion: Google Isn’t Winning This Battle
The upshot is that Google has actually done very little since its announcement on January 12. It may have modified the censor settings for a few days, but they’ve been complying with the Chinese government ever since. Talks are resuming, but despite Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s claims that it will “apply some pressure” to China, it doesn’t seem likely that the Chinese government will back down.
Will Google need to eat some humble pie and continue the status quo of a censored search engine in China? Schmidt’s comments over the past month indicate that Google doesn’t want to leave China, so that’s the probable scenario – despite all of its big talk in January.