Unlike many other honorable members of the technology blogosphere, I am not too excited about Google's ultimatum to the Chinese government (if you have been living in a cave or are not on Twitter: Google wants to either stop censoring search results on Google.cn or shut down their Chinese shop altogether).
Of course, all companies make mistakes, and Google's executives may have discovered that they blundered when they decided to offer a censored version of Google.cn. I grant them the right to to fix the situation.
But to wrap their decision in the melodramatic rhetoric of cyberattacks on Chinese human rights activists? Give me a break. Their supposed naivete about whom they were dealing with just doesn't sound very convincing. Are we really supposed to believe that, until they experienced cyberattacks on the email accounts of the Chinese human rights activists, they thought that their counterparts in the Chinese government were all good and well-meaning chaps who would never think of such a thing?
I won't be surprised if it turns out that cybercriminals in virtually every country wage cyberattacks on Gmail and other Google services. This is now what Internet companies should be expecting: cyberattacks just happen. Is Google going to threaten to leave from all those countries, too, even if it doesn't censor the Web there? If other companies were ready to shut down their shops in China or Russia every time they come under cyberattacks, they would all be done in their first months of operation.
Google justified its limited presence in China by saying that the company provides some kind of a public service. ""While removing search results is inconsistent with Google's mission, providing no information (or a heavily degraded user experience that amounts to no information) is more inconsistent with our mission" is what they said in Jan 2006. I just don't see how pulling out of China -- assuming the Chinese authorities don't bow down to Google's pressure -- would be consistent with that earlier stance.
If the logic is that Google can't guarantee the security of its Chinese users, well, they are really in bad shape and should close their shop everywhere. If, on the other hand, they completely changed their minds about the ethics of their involvement in China and now think that a little bit of censorship is evil in itself and clashes with Google's mission, then what's the point of framing it as a cybersecurity issue?
Here is my very crude and cynical (Eastern European) reading of the situation: Google was in need of some positive PR to correct its worsening image (especially in Europe, where concerns about privacy are mounting on a daily basis). Google.cn is the goat that would be sacrificed, for it will generate most positive headlines and may not result in devastating losses to Google's business (Google.cn holds roughly 30 percent of the Chinese market).
All the talk about cybersecurity breaches seems epiphenomenal to this plan; it may simply be the easiest way to frame Google's decision without triggering too many "why, oh why?" questions. Besides, there is no better candy for U.S. media and politicians than the threat of an all-out cyber-Armageddon initiated by Chinese hackers. I can assure everyone that at least a half of all discussions that Google's move would spur would be about the need to make America more secure from cyberattacks. No better timing to throw more terrorism-related meat to the U.S. public ("what if they read Obama's email?").
Now, if you believe that Google was wrong to censor the Web in China in the first place, I doubt you'll suddenly become a fan of their work -- they still don't seem to recognize that censoring the Web in China may have been wrong for ethical reasons and frame it simply as a business decision (based on new security threats). You'll probably think that they are now doing the right thing for the wrong reasons.
If, on the other hand, you believe that they did the right thing in China by offering their limited service (rather than no service at all), I don't see how this move could make you feel good either: all it took to get Google to shut down their "public service" was to launch a bunch of cyberattacks (so, should we expect that, instead of direct censorship, authoritarian governments would now simply launch cyberattacks on their targets and force them to leave under psychological pressure?). Thus, you'll probably think that they are now doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons.
So, I don't really understand all the enthusiasm about Google's move. Can anyone really make a coherent argument that by threatening to leave China because of cyberattacks, they are doing the right thing for the right reason? I'd very much like to hear it.
Evgeny Morozov, originally from Belarus, is a visiting scholar at Stanford and a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation.