Keep your War out of our InternetWritten by Julen Madariaga on March 10th, 2010
The case of Google’s new approach to China is moving slower than expected, but I have the feeling that we may see something happen pretty soon. After the New Year, the Double Meetings are almost over and the Chinese government will probably want to have this cleared before the next big item in the agenda, the Shanghai EXPO. If we are going to see an end to the Google case, my money is on March/April.
And really, the sooner we close this the better. The media are getting bored of the wait, and they are filling it with a wave of horror stories about cyberwar, all of which may be hurting Google, hurting US-China relations, and generally insulting the intelligence of netizens.
There have been reports of all kinds regarding the cyberwars, from the crazy wingnut ones to the relatively relaxed. All follow in the line of a completely muddled Google message and subsequent speech by Hillary Clinton. This article by the the “liberal” Wapo was one of the first to come out, and right from the opening paragraph it sets the mood for all the other cyberwar press that followed.
THE INTERNET has produced a vast expansion of free speech and access to information around the world. But for China and Russia, it has also become a means for waging a covert war against other nations, including the United States — a brazen effort to steal secrets and plant malware. For those countries and for a host of other authoritarian regimes, Internet freedom is a threat, to be countered by censorship, the imprisonment of bloggers and domestic spying.
As I said from the beginning, we are mixing at least 3 completely different issues, each of them caused (if at all) by different persons, and bundling it all together into the ready made Washington formula of the war for Democracy and Freedom. Let’s see the main points in the article:
“Waging a covert war”
I will pass over the obvious objection that is never too clear in Washington: war kills people, the internet does not. More crucially, there is one side missing to this war, at least until it is proven that China was attacking Americans on the internet.
But who in the People’s Liberation Army are conducting this hi-tech war, the same geniuses that were unable to put together a decent Green Dam filtering software? Or battalions of programmers from Chinese universities, all very disciplined and loyal to the army like talented hackers are known to be? There is something here that doesn’t fit.
Still, the best question has to be how exactly is China supposed to attack America. Some think tanks have a very clear answer to this: by launching a shockwave that will collapses the USA’s core IT systems. That is, the same systems where China has 2+ trillion dollars in reserves. Right.
The issue here is not related to the military. China is a country extremely hungry for technology and with little culture of intellectual property. The problem of Data Security in China predates the internet and it is very well known to companies working here. Those of us dealing with sensitive technologies work with strict procedures to ensure all IP is contained within the project team, and even so there are leaks.
But is the risk coming from independent hackers or from the Chinese government? Nobody usually asks this question, because it is difficult to prove, and quite simply we don’t care: as long as there is someone ready to pay big bucks for your techology, there will be motivated hackers/spies to go for it. Our job is to protect the information of our clients; the Western governments’ job is to put pressure on China to act more strictly against these kind of behaviours.
Similarly, the first duty of Google is to protect the information of their users. According to their own blog post, Google have failed to guard securely this information, or even their own company’s IP. But instead of admitting failure frankly, they chose to play the political game and write sweeping and unproven accusations to a government.
“Censorship, Imprisonment of bloggers and domestic spying”
Of all the accusations making the headlines, these are the only ones for which there is solid evidence against the Chinese government. All of us who watch the Chinese internet have seen and read about these issues before. But these points, while disgusting and worthy of condemnation, have nothing to do with an attack on America or any other country, nor are they specifically online problems.
Regarding censorship, we all know that Google has been a main partner of the Chinese government for the last 5 years and continues to do it today, so there is little to say for them until something changes in G.cn.
Regarding the imprisonment and domestic spying: the Chinese government has used the same holes that Google leaves open for US authorities to spy and imprison people without trial in the name of American security. In other words, China is doing exactly the same as the USA already does, except that it lacks the democracy and soft power, the Googles and the Hillaries, to market it nicely to the World.
The Internet is Changing?
Perhaps it is because Obama’s abilities as a speaker have enchanted the netizenry after the Bush era. Or it may be just that the internet is not so young anymore and it is quickly becoming mature. The point is that I see a degree of conformism in the Western internet that is scary. Led by a Google corporation now expert in lobbying, we are all quite happy to ingest the old soup that the Washington establishment is cooking up for us.
And it is much the same sticky soup that we have been eating offline for ages, now taken to the web. The ingredients are: big ideals like Freedom and Democracy, the own interests of US foreign policy, and the supposed priorities of “American Security”, all well passed with the blender and served with a dose of Kool Aid to cover the taste of gunpowder.
It would be silly to accuse Clinton or the Wapo of this. They are the Washington establishment and they are doing their job admirably well: defending American interests and pushing for American foreign policy goals. But what is not so obvious is that Google should be part of that game, or that the World’s netizens will continue to follow and trust Google blindly once they understand that its allegiance is to a certain country rather than to recognized universal principles.
Google’s risky bet
This is something many Americans don’t realize, but the support that Google gets in other countries is something quite unique for an American corporation. I have found myself in discussions with French and Chinese people who defended Google passionately and jumped at my throat when I mentioned “monopoly” or “the new Microsoft”. International revenues of Google are already larger than Google US, but Google’s main business, the search engine, has weak network effects. This means that unlike services like Windows or Facebook, Google needs to continuously cultivate goodwill to keep the people clicking on its sites and trusting its cloud.
By openly siding with the US government, Google is betting that the collaboration with the NSA and American defense will make its cloud look more secure to the World’s users. While Obama is there representing America this might probably work, but it is a very risky approach, and in places like Europe or Asia it can easily backfire. Sooner or later the time will come when the US shows its less amiable face, and then will all those people still be happy to put their lives in the hands of the NSA?
Another question: isn’t Data Security a core business that Google should develop internally, instead of handing it over to government agencies?
My own site has been
de-indexed not indexed by Google for almost three months, and two consecutive processes of reconsideration have changed nothing. Probably This is not due to the what I write , but to a previously existing (long solved) problem of duplicate content. In any case, the banning disappearing of this site from the Google search has taken away 40% of my readers and a larger portion of new followers. While I try not to let this influence my opinion of Google, the whole thing has been an enlightening experience. You need to run a website and get it banned by disappear from G to feel the power of the beast company in your own skin. I just wish this tool never falls into the wrong hands.
UPDATE: Whatever I might say of Google at a political level, I have to state clearly that it is an amazing company. How many times have you seen that you complain about a service on your blog and the customer support people come over to comment and help you out? I solved the problem yesterday and in fact it had nothing to do with Google (more details in the webmaster link in comments). I apologize for even slightly implying that Google might be banning my content, and cheers to John Mueller for his help.