Google Just Says No To China: Ending Censorship, Due To Gmail Attack

Google has revealed that the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists were targeted last December in a hacking attempt. That, along with other issues, has convinced the company that it will no longer do censor results China as the Chinese government wishes.
In particular, Google has willingly allowed self-censored its search results since January 27, 2006, on its Google China service. The screenshot above show an example of this, where a search for tiananmen on Google China (on the left) doesn’t bring up protest pictures as you get when searching for the same thing on Google’s main site at
Google was heavily criticized for caving into China, especially in light of its “Don’t Be Evil” motto. Google CEO Eric Schmidt at one point explained that Google developed an evil scale to weigh if it was better to be a little evil in censoring for the bigger good in bringing information to the Chinese people.
That scale has now tipped so much that Google’s effectively pulling out entirely of censorship. As it has investigated attacks on its Gmail service, Google has decided cooperating on censorship makes no sense. I’ve bolded the key part from today’s blog post:
We launched 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, 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, and potentially our offices in China.
The decision to review our business operations in China has been incredibly hard, and we know that it will have potentially far-reaching consequences. We want to make clear that this move was driven by our executives in the United States, without the knowledge or involvement of our employees in China who have worked incredibly hard to make the success it is today. We are committed to working responsibly to resolve the very difficult issues raised.
What was the attack that triggered all this? Google says that in mid-December, it detected an attack from China on its “corporate infrastructure” that resulted in the theft of “intellectual property” from Google. What that property was isn’t disclosed, but it seemed to involve trying to access the Gmail accounts of some Chinese human rights activists. Google says no actual emails were recovered, however:
We have evidence to suggest that a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. Based on our investigation to date we believe their attack did not achieve that objective. Only two Gmail accounts appear to have been accessed, and that activity was limited to account information (such as the date the account was created) and subject line, rather than the content of emails themselves.
Google also said that it was not the only company to have been attacked in this way:
As part of our investigation we have discovered that at least twenty other large companies from a wide range of businesses–including the Internet, finance, technology, media and chemical sectors–have been similarly targeted. We are currently in the process of notifying those companies, and we are also working with the relevant U.S. authorities.
Also as part of its investigation, Google says it has also determined that Gmail accounts of some activists HAVE been accessed but not because of a Google security breach but instead do to activists being victims of malware or phishing attempts:
As part of this investigation but independent of the attack on Google, we have discovered that the accounts of dozens of US-, China- and Europe-based Gmail users who are advocates of human rights in China appear to have been routinely accessed by third parties. These accounts have not been accessed through any security breach at Google, but most likely via phishing scams or malware placed on the users’ computers
Google does not explicitly say that the Chinese government itself was behind or condoning the attacks, nor could I get them to confirm this in talking about the move. But that’s the implication. It makes little sense to tell the Chinese government that you’ll no longer cooperate with it on censorship because of hacking attempts unless you believe those had government approval.
Google & Censorship
To understand more about how Google has censored in China, I highly recommend reading Google’s Gatekeepers, a New York Times Magazine article from 2008 that looked in depth at the issue. On the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, Google also blocked all searches for those words, not just particular content that the Chinese government might have deemed illegal. Google also applies censorship to the sources it carries in the Chinese version of Google News.
The censorship is not perfect. For example in a search for tiananmen square, I got images of injured people on Google China (the first and fourth images below, reading from left to right):
tiananmen square - Google 搜索
Of course, if I were actually within China, the images that I see above might have been better filtered. It’s also confusing to know what anyone sees exactly, since Google shifted to personalizing results for each individual back in December.
China is also not the only country that Google censors in. Google also pulls content in a wide range of other countries, including places like Germany and the US, depending on national laws. For example, in a search for american nazi party on Google Germany, you can see that Google has censored one result through the disclaimer it shows at the bottom of the page:
american nazi party - Google-Suche
Similarly in a search for Addicted To Bass Winter 2009 download on Google in the US, six pages have been removed because of a copyright infringement claim:
Addicted To Bass Winter 2009 download - Google Search
In China, disclaimers are also posted when content is removed, as you see here:
tiananmen - Google 搜索
So one issue Google now faces is why it will now fight Chinese censorship but not censorship in other countries. The answer is likely that Google will seek to curb the widespread censorship that China demands especially on political discourse. That such widespread censorship, even though legal in China, is simply too restrictive and unreasonable for Google to operate under.
Google & The Chinese Market
Google has diligently worked to build marketshare in China over the years, one of the few countries where it is not the dominant player. When it failed to censor, it found itself losing traffic due to government blocking to the leading player there, Baidu. The ability for people to find music, not always legally, in Baidu also has contributed.
In another example of its efforts in China, Google underwent a huge fight with Microsoft to retain Kai-Fu Lee as president of its China operations. Lee was formerly a Microsoft employee. In 2008, Lee said his goal was to make Google the Chinese market leader in five year. Google won the fight for Lee, though he eventually left the company late last year.
Postscript: I sent across some further questions to Google, and here’s what I’ve received from the company:
Can you say more by what you mean about intellectual property? Are you talking some of the code that runs Gmail or what?
This is the subject of an ongoing investigation, and we simply cannot comment on the details.
It sounds like you’re saying the Chinese government was behind this. Is that the case?
We’re not going to speculate, because we don’t know. What’s clear is that the environment in which we are operating in terms of an open Internet is not improving in China. That, combined with these attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered, mean that we’re no longer comfortable self-censoring our search in China.
Is the censorship ended as of 3pm Pacific, or is there a phase out?
Via the blog post [we've said]: We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on, 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.
That suggests that censorship is continuing for the time being and may do so over the coming weeks.
Postscript 2: There’s building related coverage of the news here on Techmeme. now. I’d also recommend watching long-time China watcher Rebecca MacKinnon’s blog for her take, which I expect will appear in the near future.

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