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Google and China, the thin end of the wedge?

14 January 2010

First up, let me say that I like the Chinese. By and large, they're a friendly people with a happy disposition and an enviable work ethic.

However, the power of the Chinese government is undeniable. They rule with an iron fist and if you piss them off too much, there's a good chance your corneas will no longer be doing service in your own eyes.

Until now, any online company that wants to do business in China has had to comply with the censorship demands of that government and thus Yahoo, Google and others have placed strict controls over the range and type of content the Chinese versions of their systems offered users.

But now Google has effectively said "enough!" and withdrawn its cooperation.

Could this be the irresistible force clashing with the immovable object?

Google is big but is it really big enough to go head to head with the government of a nation that many are picking to be the next world super-power?

And why have Google suddenly decided to risk its corneas by defying the country's laws?

Well apparently the search giant has had a guts-full of Chinese-based attacks on its mail system by apparently state-employed hackers. Ongoing attempts to access the mail accounts of human rights activists have reached a level where Google has had to respond -- and their response has been to withdraw all censorship restrictions on its services.

No doubt this will see "The Great Firewall of China" being configured to block all access to Google services but that's probably not going to hurt the company too much.

Right now, the Chinese population constitutes just 7% of the total online population and Google's search engine attracted a mere 35% of all search queries in China -- falling well behind the government-preferred Baidu.

Indeed, despite Google's concessions, the Chinese government has boldly promoted Baidu over Google, something the company has been far from pleased about.

So where to from here?

Well there are still vast numbers of Chinese who are smart enough to side-step the government firewalls. For them, Google's changes will be a good thing -- allowing them unfettered access to a wealth of information previously stripped from the search results.

But China's status and importance as a growing economy and technology superpower looks set to increase -- which means that Google has effectively locked itself out of the fastest growing market in the world. Indeed, Microsoft has labeled China as "the most important strategic market".

From my perspective, I think it's a shame that it took so long for Google to wake up and smell the coffee.

If they'd made this move a lot earlier and done so on the basis of championing human rights and the freedom of speech, I suspect they'd have gained a lot of good PR in the West. As it is, their move mow seems like a knee-jerk reaction to the activities of a bunch of government-funded hackers -- not quite such a laudable justification.

However, China needs to take a good long look at itself before they become a pariah in the online world.

China's hackers (including a good number of government-funded ones) have been going hell-for-leather in their attempts to break into the computer systems of the governments and commercial enterprises of other nations.

Nobody wants to do business with a nation that's looking to pick your pockets -- do they?

We've already seen that most governments of the world are prepared to bend over backwards and ignore blatant human rights abuses if it means they have access to a good supply of cheap DVD players and teeshirts from China. Could it be that we're going to be just as accepting of their continued and repeated attempts to hack the computers of our governments and industries?

Maybe Google has done something huge here.

Perhaps the rest of the world will slowly follow their lead and say "no, this is not acceptable" when dealing with the Chinese government.

What do you think?

Has Google done the right thing (even if perhaps for the wrong reasons)?

Is it time we realised that some of our principles ought not be devalued or sacrificed for a few shiny DVD players and colourful teeshirts?

The current situation reminds me very much of swapping land for beads and blankets -- except we're swapping our ethics, morals and principles for a few cheap appliances and shirts.

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