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Tangling with a Tyrant

Google's ugly relationship with the Chinese government.

4:31 PM, Jan 13, 2010 • By DANIEL HALPER
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Google has learned the hard way about the difficulty of dealing with a repressive regime. After years of bowing to China’s demand for censure, Google systems have reportedly been hacked (or compromised) by the Chinese government. The reason: The Chinese government hoped to uncover emails from human rights activists.

The attack was so severe that the U.S.-based company is contemplating leaving the Chinese market altogether. This would be no small move. According to CNET, Google will be leaving what might become the most lucrative market in the business. China’s population is 1.38 billion; it currently has 338 million active Internet users (roughly 25 percent of the population). Accordingly, 75 percent of the market remains unconnected to the Internet, so the potential for growth is huge.

Unfortunately, if Google now leaves China, it won’t be in solidarity with human rights activists. It would be strictly a business move--the very reason that ended up getting Google into this mess.

Google has for years censored the searches it produces within China, as a special gesture to the communist regime. The Washington Post explains:

When Google set up a subsidiary in China in 2005 and purchased servers hosted in the country, it agreed to censor its search results. But the company and the government officials trolling the Internet have continued to clash over what content should be blocked.

The conflicts escalated in June when Beijing blamed Google for smut on the Internet, saying that some search results could be considered pornographic. China temporarily blocked and Gmail in what was believed to be a punishment.

Google’s response to the attack from the Chinese autocrats? Cease censorship of its Internet searches, in a move clearly meant to irk the Chinese.

Hillary Clinton, through the State Department’s website, seems rightfully concerned:

We have been briefed by Google on these allegations, which raise very serious concerns and questions. We look to the Chinese government for an explanation. The ability to operate with confidence in cyberspace is critical in a modern society and economy. I will be giving an address next week on the centrality of internet freedom in the 21st century, and we will have further comment on this matter as the facts become clear.

Google has locked itself into an unenviable predicament, which could have been altogether prevented had the Internet conglomerate not initially acquiesced to the tyranny's demands. But it’s too late now. We’ll have to wait until next week, but let’s hope the State Department has learned from Google’s mistake.

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