Cyber Attack Spurs Google to a Human Rights Stand

On Jan. 12, 2010, Google changed its relationship with China.  China is a massive market so it is very attractive to businesses.  There are more Internet users in China that there are people in the U.S.  So it follows that Google has been a part of the Chinese Internet market.  However, the Chinese government does have wide ranging control over businesses, including foreign businesses, that operate in China.  Google in China is not the same as Google in the rest of the world.  The Chinese language version of Google (Google.cn) was censored as per requirements of the Chinese government.  This practice dates back to 2006.  The censorship restrictions included what terms people could search and the web sites they could access.  The focus of the censorship involves issues related to governmental policies and challenges to them.  Many news and human rights sites were blocked along with information on the Tiananmen Square massacre (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/4645596.stm)

So Google decide nearly four years later to stop censoring with a post to the Internet.  Here is part of that post:

“We launched Google.cn in January 2006 in the belief that the benefits of increased access to information for people in China and a more open Internet outweighed our discomfort in agreeing to censor some results. At the time we made clear that “we will carefully monitor conditions in China, including new laws and other restrictions on our services. If we determine that we are unable to achieve the objectives outlined we will not hesitate to reconsider our approach to China.”

These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered–combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web–have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.” http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2010/01/new-approach-to-china.html

As the part of the message notes, the change was due in large part to a cyber attack on Google traced to China.  The focus of the attack was the Gmail (Google e-mail accounts) of Chinese human rights activists.  Some 20 other companies experienced similar attacks designed to access information about human rights activists.  The groups Human Rights Watch congratulated Google for finally ending censorship nd taking a stand in China saying, “Google’s resolve to avoid complicity with such flagrant violations of freedom of expression and association deserves praise.” http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601080&sid=a9RFgswPERxg

Clearly this is not the end of the story.  There will be reactions from the Chinese government to these actions.  Google may well leave the Chinese market and Google.cn could be dismantled. In addition to attempts to gain information about human rights activists, the cyber attack also resulted in the theft of proprietary information from Google.  It appears the cyber attack was state-sponsored and that was finally enough for Google to take a stand in China.

Questions to Consider

  1.  Does the tail of Google in China support the need for corporations to develop foreign policies (guidelines for how they will relate to foreign governments)?
  2. Would you argue this case is more about business or more about human rights?
  3. How might this incident help Google’s reputation?
  4. How could Google justify censorship in China for so long?
  5. What ethical implications do you find in this case?
  6. How does this case serve as an example of public diplomacy?
  7. What, if anything, has Google done previously to help promote human rights?
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