Keep your War out of our Internet

Written by Julen Madariaga on March 10th, 2010

no-a-la-guerra (1)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.

“Steal secrets”

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

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.

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Comments so far ↓

  1. Mar

    I am sorry, but if you don’t think there is a large IP and national security threat on American private and public networks you are extremely naive. One of the greatest nations in espionage of intellectual property and confidential government programs is the Chinese. Every nation does this so it is not horrifying. The Chinese just do it better than most nations, especially the United States.

    [Reply to this comment]

  2. Mar
    Julen Madariaga

    I think there is a threat, and I think America is quite right to protect itself. What I don’t think is that the main threat comes from the PLA or that this has anything to do with a war against China.

    The USA is more notorious for the its international espionage activities than China by any measurable standards. This is clearly true offline, and I would be very surprised if it is not true online as well. In fact, with the ever growing budget of the US defense, they would have to be completely retarded not to invest in online defense all these years. The US military has still much more $ and brains than China by a very large difference, so I don’t believe that Chinese do espionage better than the US.

    What is probably true is that Chinese practices more industrial espionage, because there is more incentive here to do it. This is something that is harming Western companies, but it is also harming Chinese ones who copy each other and are condemned to abandon all serious attempt at RD. Sooner or later China will have to address this seriously.

    Finally, as I say in the post, I am not against American politicians defending their country. It is their job and they do it just fine. What I am against is the age old deliberate bundling of universal values with national objectives. Simply put, the 2 objectives below are both noble and acceptable:

    1- Defend Justice, Democracy and Freedom in the World.
    2- Ensure the wellbeing and security of Americans.

    What these objectives are certainly not is identical. And by openly associating itself with American international politics, Google has positioned itself on number 2 rather than on number 1. From now on it will be perceived as an American company, rather than as a non-evil company. This may have important consequences in the future of G.

    [Reply to this comment]

  3. Mar
    Julen Madariaga

    BTW, back to the war thing. I was just thinking that, if the situation comes when there is real threat of attack (for example a military crisis over Taiwan) it should be really easy for American forces to cut out the Chinese internet from the rest of the World.

    The same 3 nodes that the Chinese government uses to censor the outside internet (the only points that connect China with the rest of the World) would act against China in this case, blocking the Chinese hackers from massive access to outside networks.

    Although, frankly speaking, in a crisis between 2 nuclear countries, I still think the internet would be the least of our concerns…

    [Reply to this comment]

    Jason Irwin Reply:

    @Julen Madariaga, I don’t see why either nation would need to resort to nuclear weapons. Those things are old-school, messy, and will likely damage the “victorious” nation more than the victim.

    With regards to the “3 nodes” issue, if the Chinese government were seriously going to go after a nation, I doubt they would use local resources for such activities. There are huge groups of pro-China emigrants who have migrated to Canada, the US, Japan, the UK, as well as various countries in the Middle East who would jump at the chance to serve their mother nation.

    Either way, I look forward to seeing how China handles this situation.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Julen Madariaga Reply:

    Fair enough about the Chinese in other countries, I guess the 3 nodes idea is not really worth pursuing.

    In fact, I don’t even think you need a massive group of ethnical Chinese in the West to do it. Probably with 1 person to manage a massive botnet it would be enough, and much easier also for the purpose of erasing all traces. The last botnet they caught back in my hometown was managed by three guys who were not even skilled hackers.

    Which takes us back to my initial argument: that the threat of internet attacks is serious, definitely. But that it is not a threat coming particularly from China, a country that has a lot more to lose than to win in an open confrontation. The real risk would rather come from individuals, or terrorist groups, or even from a teenager in a basement wanting to get some attention.

    I believe this risk is understood by American defense long ago, and it has little to do with the CCP spying Google in China to get dissidents identities. And it has also little to do with the well known problem of industrial espionage.

    What peeves me in all this is the way the media mixes everything together to write spectacular stuff about cyberwar, reviving the Red scare again and again, when we are speaking about a completely different issue, namely: civil rights in China.

    [Reply to this comment]

  4. Mar
    John Mueller

    I help with webmaster support at Google and wanted to check in with regards to your “de-indexed” comment at the end of your post. If you could post details of what you are seeing and of what you have done so far in our Webmaster Help Forum then I would be happy to take a look. You can find the forum at (if you’ve already posted there, please post the URL of your thread here :-) ).

    [Reply to this comment]

    Julen Madariaga Reply:

    @John Mueller, Hi, thanks for coming over!

    I wrote in webmasters support a while ago, and the guys there were pretty helpful and gave me a clue to what was happening: a major news blog was syndicating my content and they were copying all the full posts from my RSS stream and posting them immediately, so Google thought I was copying them. This was obviously my bad, as I gave permission to that site last year (I was not so aware of the importance of SEO at the time). In January I got in contact with them and since then they have stopped the syndication.

    Regarding the “de-index”: it is not a complete de-indexing, in fact the old posts are still there. It is just that the new posts, starting exactly from January 1st 2010, are not indexed. You can run a search for any of the titles of my posts, and you find all the twitter/blogs/etc linking to it, but you don’t find IT. For example, search for “sex and conservatives in china” and you will see.

    So I wrote a reconsideration request in January which was answered within a week, saying they had reviewed my blog and would reconsider it. But more than a month has passed and nothing has changed yet. I have written a new reconsideration about a week ago. I have reviewed the guidelines on the webmaster site and the diagnostic tools and I don’t see anything wrong. I would appreciate very much if you can help me out.

    My initial webmaster thread was:

    [Reply to this comment]

    John Mueller Reply:

    @Julen Madariaga, I added a comment to your thread in the forum. Basically, it looks like a technical issue that should be fairly easy to resolve.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Julen Madariaga Reply:

    @John Mueller, I finally found the problem last night.

    Already corrected the post to make this clear for everyone and I am writing more detailed explanation in a minute in Webmaster tools. Thanks a lot for your help!

    [Reply to this comment]

    Julen Madariaga Reply:

    @John Mueller, I finally found out the problem last night.

    Already corrected the post to make this clear for everyone and I am writing more detailed explanation in a minute in Webmaster tools. Thanks a lot for your help!

    [Reply to this comment]

  5. Mar

    Hi Julen,
    Now its more clear what is going on, I was wondering why it was so difficult to find your blog on google. I had gave up to access your site via google and have memorized your website’s address.
    keep up the good work!
    ps: Tu eres valiente porque usas tu nombre

    [Reply to this comment]

  6. Mar
    Julen Madariaga

    Yes, most people do not use bookmarks properly or keep them well organized. This means that even readers who know the site and want to get directly there, they end up using Google search instead. Being in Google is essential today to any website.

    PS. And thanks for your kind comment, BTW :)

    [Reply to this comment]

  7. Mar

    The Americans have been fed this increasingly shrill hysteria that China is a threat to the USA. Let me quote from Straits Times (Singapore)’ commentary on October 2, 2009:

    “Attending a military course in the United States last year, a Straits Times reader told me that many American captains and senior warrant officers had raised their hands when asked whether China constituted a threat to America. The Singapore civil servant said: ‘To me, it looks like they’re trying to find someone to fight with. That’s troubling.’”

    Given this mindset in the US, it is perhaps not difficult to understand why it is so easy for the Americans to point fingers at China, even though the origins of cyber attacks are difficult to pin down. Are they trying to pick a fight with China, perceived to be America’s rival?

    And, as reported in another Straits Times commentary, “…Chinese websites and computers had consistently been hacked. It (China) provided dates and numbers, and said a decent percentage of attacks was of US origin.”

    [Reply to this comment]

  8. Mar

    it is nice to be able share many things here… hopefully our post make the world better ..

    [Reply to this comment]

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