Comment Amnesty International was among the human rights organisations scrambling to congratulate Google for threatening to pull out of China today.
Which just shows how much human rights activists know about technology. Come to think of it, if human rights campaigners did know more about technology, they might think twice about using Gmail accounts.
It’s hard to see Google’s move as a brave and principled strike against China’s intolerance of political dissent. The ad broker has said it’s no longer prepared to censor searches in China. So, does that mean it’s simply kicked the problem of policing Chinese Google searches to the Chinese themselves? It’s a sensible bit of outsourcing really – censorship is one of Beijing's core competencies. And they’ll probably do it more efficiently.
It’s also worth noting that in its blog posting announcing its change of heart, the fact that the China-based attacks on its systems were concentrated on human rights’ activists' emails was only the second point. First on the agenda for Google was that it had uncovered the attacks and that they went beyond Google and hit at least 20 other companies spanning finance, media, technology… corporate America/West you might say.
Google said it has tightened up its own systems, and is informing other companies affected – as well as going running to the likes of Hillary Clinton, who is threatening serious conversations with China over the issue.
But this is the same Google who on entering China four years ago chose to translate its “do no evil” slogan along Pekingese lines to mean "don’t mess with China’s foibles when it comes to democracy, Tibet, Tiananmen etc".
Now, when a company is trying to build a business convincing real businesses to trust its infrastructure, getting hacked by the Chinese is a business nightmare. Chinese hackers are reckoned to be raiding the West's systems not just for fun, but to uncover IP, policy, information, anything that might be useful to Beijing.
Google has been at pains to say "This was not an assault on cloud computing. It was an attack on the technology infrastructure of major corporations in sectors as diverse as finance, technology, media, and chemical... we believe our customer cloud-based data remains secure."
Except you might reasonably argue that Google’s technology infrastructure is all about cloud computing. And note that it isn't exactly offering a cast-iron reassurance.
The likes of US patent powerhouse IBM might not even think about trusting their secrets to Google, whether across email, or by having spreadsheets and presentations hosted in Google docs. But smaller firms might, and they might think twice about this if they think that red hackers already have an way into the system.
Luckily for Google its Chinese business isn’t the leader it is in other countries. If it has to pull out of the country altogether, all it means is it ditches its staff there, except for the brains it drags back to the US.
So, if Google decides to withdraw from China, what's the cost? It gives the appearance of making itself less of a target for Chinese hackers. It stops wasting money competing with powerful incumbents in China. It gets to repolish its 'don't be evil' door sign. It might even get some Google Docs business from Amnesty International. ®