Wednesday, January 27, 2010 5:55 PM Be a member & get the benefits! Register or login The real significance of Google’s China play

Padang main focus on Google’s announcement that it will no longer censor its search results in China is on the likely impact. Will Google effectively pull out of China? Will China feel pressured into responding — either to mollify Western companies or to angrily denounce Google’s stance?

Others have focused on whether other search engines like Microsoft and Yahoo may feel obliged to
follow suit.

All this is interesting.

But bigger, I think, in the wider scheme of things is something else. Google says it is no longer censoring its search results after finding that hackers had been burrowing into their computers and trying to get into the email accounts of its users in China. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Google is saying that it is holding China responsible for these attacks.

Of course Google isn’t saying it in so many words. That’s because these things are very hard to prove.

All it will say so far is that it’s not pointing fingers because it doesn’t yet have all the facts.

The problem is that when it comes to Internet attacks there are rarely any smoking guns. Only a lot of circumstantial smoke.

Yes, someone is trying to hack into the email accounts of individuals and groups opposing the Chinese government. This has been happening for years, both inside and outside China. Yes, most of these attacks seem to be coming from China.

Yes, some Chinese hackers claim that they are paid, at least in part, by the Chinese government.
Yes, the US government has itself warned of ‘strong indications’ of Chinese state involvement on government computers or those of defense contractors.

But of course the government routinely denies any such involvement. They would. No government seems to have stood up, as far as I know, to acknowledge they’ve been doing a bit of cyber-battling.

But the truth is that we’re already at a stage where this kind of thing is commonplace.

For want of a better term, these things are called cyber attacks. Whether they’re done by governments or by those supporting the government may never be clear.

But there’s no question that China is concerned about those people in and outside the country that could do it damage.

In 2008, ahead of the Olympics, there was a concerted effort to get inside the computer networks of groups like the Dalai Lama’s and Falun Gong. Some of this was sophisticated, some of it less so.

A few days ago a group calling itself the Iranian Cyber Army brought down China’s biggest search engine, The Iranian government has denied any link. The Estonian government has accused Russia of ordering attacks on government websites in 2007.

Georgia made similar claims during the South Ossetia war the same year. Russia has of course denied any such claims.

That’s the great thing about the Internet. No one knows whether you’re a dog, or a PLA soldier.

There will be plenty of hand wringing over Google’s position. For all its efforts to take the moral high ground, there are bound to have been some hard business decisions behind the move.

But more interesting, I think, will be whether this leads to a recognition that, behind all the handshakes and warm fuzzy feelings, we’re in the midst of a Cold Cyberwar, which straddles the private sector, governments, defense contractors and criminal gangs.

After all, Google claimed that it was just one of 20 major companies that were hacked and its implicit linking of that to the government.

Google is presumably quite smart about computer hacking and security. Whatever it found on those
computers in its basement must have given it a big enough shock to be ready to pack its bags and get out of the world’s most dynamic economy.


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