Dancing with the dragon

January 15, 2010 at 2:00 am 2 comments


Image: A Chinese outside Google's China headquarters in Beijing

No doubt you’ve been reading about the fracas going on between Google and the Chinese Government. If not, go here for a quick run-down.

What are the Chinese after I wonder. Is it just hacking into the Gmail accounts of Chinese human-rights activists? Or are they after something far juicier like Google’s immense databases and archives and all the information about you and me?

Professor Roger Clarke (Australian consultant and advisor on privacy and dataveillance issues) was interviewed in Crikey and I found what he had to say about Google a bit chilling:

“It’s got all of your search-terms. And it’s got what you clicked on while you’ve been on Google pages. It’s got a list of pretty much every ad you ever clicked on. It’s got any emails that you sent to Gmail users. It’s got what people sent to you from Gmail accounts. It’s got the correspondence that you exchanged with people who, unbeknown to you, flush all of their mail from other accounts through Gmail. It’s got every posting that you’ve sent, since about 2004, to every email-list that you’re on (because at least one person on every list uses Gmail). All of that data is directly related to you because of the email-addresses, IP-addresses and personal names contained in all of that traffic.

That’s reinforced by its use of your email-address as your login id for Google services, and a suite of cookies that are common across all services. If you’re a Google addict, it may also have every location that you ever typed into Google Maps, and every Streetview you ever displayed. And you may have even gifted it your photo collection, and a copy of your own disk-files.

So Google is in a position to mine from its holdings: your online behaviour; your economic and social interests, your political views, your network of contacts and your close associates”.

So what’s the drama you say? Well, what happens when all this juicy data about you falls into the hands of an authoritarian government? Think about that for a moment.

I would applaud Google for threatening to shut down their operations in China and refusing to continue with self-censorship if I thought they were doing so by taking a stand on censorship or human rights violation.  I’ve always thought Google was in violation of  Article 19 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights by censoring searches or blocking websites to keep the Chinese dudes happy. Google isn’t admitting that their hissy fit goes beyond the suggestion that Chinese hackers attacked Gmail accounts of human rights activists. But why the hissy fit now when Google’s been dancing with the Chinese and self-censoring for a few years ? Why the sudden throwing down of the gauntlet to the Chinese over censorship and cyber attacks? I’m sure Google hasn’t just woken up to the fact that they were dealing with the Chinese and not the neutral Swiss!

There are mutterings that Google is using cyber-terrorism and censorship as a smokescreen to get the hell out of China and extract itself from business failings there.  The Chinese market is dominated by the search giant, Baidu, with Google only having a 30% share of China’s $1 billion search market.

Is Google really living up to its “don’t be evil” motto by going up against the Chinese dragon? Does it really believe that the Chinese government will bow down to a US company?

Call me cynical but I think with questions being asked about Google’s plans to digitise millions of books; Google being criticised in several European countries over Street View and invasion of privacy; and data security concerns over its cloud computing apps – well, frankly Google could do with a good news story of being seen to take the high moral ground. It will be interesting to see how this plays out for Google and what will it mean for US-China relations?


Entry filed under: Censorship, China, Google. Tags: .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Baoman  |  January 16, 2010 at 11:35 am

    Quite a good analysis of the situation. I would add we have more to fear from the U.S. government legislating its right to the information about us in Google’s vast repositories than from it falling into the hands of the Chinese government via hacking. The Chinese government is primarily interested in two things: 1) discrediting those people (particularly its citizens) that it believes are agains it, 2) blocking access other citizens have to what the former group is saying. Google is, like almost every foreign firm that has tried to operate in China since 1850, disappointed in its results to-date. Its Chinese CEO just left to form his own company. As you point out, revenue is not good and overall usage is not expanding rapidly. This sounds like almost any foreign company in China for its first 20 years of existence. Google needs to suck it up and go for the long road or simply leave it all to Yahoo and Baidu. I agree, this is more of a PR exercise rather than a real crises of faith for Google.

  • 2. creativespark  |  January 17, 2010 at 3:00 am

    Hi Kim

    I like a good conspiracy theory as much as the next person, but is Professor Clarke stating these things as fact, with the added gravitas of his title making us take them seriously, or is it just fear mongering?

    It’s certainly not what Google says they do here http://www.google.com/privacy_faq.html
    which is to anonymise IP addresses after 9 months, cookies after 18 months. They’re vague about what they do with email.

    Just thinking about it from a processing, matching and storage point of view, it would be a massive and expensive undertaking on all levels, from processing power to storage. So big that it would be impossible to keep secret I’m sure, Not to mention programming… it’s hard enough just to get decent semantic matching on a single website… and if someone had managed to do it with all the world’s data that would be quite some feat. It’d need to be continually developed (last year, for example, everyone started Twittering) with thousands of programmers.

    So, that’d be quite the investment, and quite the big secret. The question you’d have to ask is… why? And unless you go down the path of Google being some kind of dark and evil corporation bent on world domination (pinky to mouth, bwaaa haaaa ha), or a puppet for a political system with those aims, then you’re stuck asking why.

    No doubt our relationship with corporate interests is a double-edged sword, and our mothers would have said “put down the sword, you’re going to cut yourself or poke an eye out”. By digitising books, you might one day be able to access stuff available only in the dusty reserve section of a library in Boston, or Berlin. Or scan some vast 7 volume set to instantly locate a phrase you’re looking for. But we all know that at some stage you’re going to need to have your credit card handy if you want to do that. The gap between the haves and have-nots of information is going to widen. The publishing industry in all its levels is going to undergo a siesmic shift. We’ll have new conspiracy theories to worry about (is information being filtered? is someone shaping what we see?)

    No doubt there’s a lot to worry about, and we should all be watching like hawks. It’s getting harder and harder to live off the grid though. I assume now that everything I do is to some extent “public information” and the only way I can think to cope with that is to keep it in mind, and not do anything I’d be ashamed to have associated with my name. It’s not ideal, but barring evil military dictatorships taking over the world and mining my data for “subversion” of some type far outside of current norms, it’s the best I can do.

    =) Marc


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