“It is still hard to say whether Google will quit China or not. Nobody knows,” said an official of the State Council Information Office who asked not to be named.
Google's complaints are overdue. The famously righteous firm (its bumper-sticker credo: "Don't be Evil") has strained to find a path between its free-and-open Internet and the clampdown version practiced in China. So far, Google has caved to Beijing. Try Googling "Tiananmen massacre" or "Dalai Lama" while in China, and the search results come up glaring – glaringly blank, that is.
Google’s demand to be allowed to operate its Google.cn search engine free from censorship came after what it described as a “highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China”.
Further investigation revealed that attempts had been made to access the Google mail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. It said that at least 20 other companies were also targeted.
And this isn’t the first time. A major coordinated assault on computers of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, foreign embassies and even foreign ministries was uncovered last year and traced back to Chinese hackers. The operation targeted computers in more than 100 countries and was so widespread that Western intelligence experts believe it was organized by the Chinese government, although there is no definitive proof.
These alleged cyber attacks have strained the countries’ trans-Pacific relations, a rapport that is frayed already over issues of trade, currency, climate change and arms sales to Taiwan.
In response, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanded an explanation from China. She said the “ability to operate with confidence in cyberspace is critical in a modern society and economy”.
As of yet, China has no official response to Clinton’s – or anyone’s – protests over its comparatively Draconian media directives. Google made contact with Chinese officials yesterday though, and discussions are understood to be underway still.
In public, Chinese authorities largely ignored this display of defiance from Google. Here, foreign companies have almost invariably accepted intrusive controls by Chinese powers as it then allows them to tap into China’s huge and growing market.
But not Google. It had hopes that China would relax freedom of speech restrictions after the 2008 Olympics, as promised. But Internet controls have continued to be tightened with blocks on popular social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and most recently IMDb, a movie review site.
If Google pulls out, experts estimate that the multi-billion dollar company might relinquish about $350 million worth of business, though Google hasn’t divulged the exact size of its dealings in China. Yet this represents just two percent of its worldwide revenues.
Google has little to lose, suggest some, especially since Google isn’t even the most popular search engine in China. The market research firm, comScore, shows that about 70 percent of searches in China are made through the local search engine Baidu, with Google trailing by 15 percent.
The news was carried prominently on websites but ignored completely by state-run media. Dismayed web users made their way to the company’s Beijing offices to leave bouquets. Some bowed before the building. One message read: “Google: a real man”.