Google’s bombshell announcement yesterday about its “new approach” to China is still reverberating across the media and the blogosphere. Everyone is trying to put this in perspective, assessing its impact and figuring out Google’s true motivations and rationale for this drastic action. However, most blogs and analysis focused on two important aspects of this story : Google’s tough stance against the freedom and censorship issues in China and the business implications of this for Google. But very few address another equally important aspect : The warning to the free world of the clear and present danger of Chinese cyber attacks and cyber warfare . Here is a quick rundown of some popular reactions :
Many bloggers and analysts are saying that Google deserves kudos for this tough and brave stance against censorship and oppression in China, and that they are living up to their “don’t be evil” motto. Rebecca MackInnon has an excellent post titled “Google puts its foot down” and writes :
” They are living up to their “don’t be evil” motto – much mocked of late – and living up to their commitments to free speech and privacy as a member of the Global Network Initiative. “
This sentiment was echoed by many bloggers and media analysts and was certainly a factor in Google’s decision.
However, many including Sarah Lacy of Techcrunch say this is “more about business than thwarting evil”
” Does anyone really think Google would be doing this if it had top market share in the country? For one thing, I’d guess that would open them up to shareholder lawsuits. Google is a for-profit, publicly-held company at the end of the day….”
William Haven asks “Does The Internet Giant Really Deserve Our Praise ?” and writes :
“Google was struggling in competition with Baidu, China’s most popular search engine. Baidu.com holds over 60 per cent of China’s search engine market while Google.cn – at its best – has held just over half that. So perhaps Google is simply trying to spin a business decision. “
I do not agree as both the above arguments regarding market share are untenable – 30% market share in a country with 300 million active internet users is still a huge business and very profitable to boot ! Business decisions are based on profits and not market share – unless you claim that Google’s business model requires it to be #1 in every market that it operates in. By that reasoning, Yahoo which has a mere 10% share of the search market or Bing which has 5% share should have shut down operations long back. And Avis should not be in the car rental business !
And here is Robert Scoble – who makes the same point very well in his blog post :
” UPDATE: A Google Spokesperson just emailed me this: “This is not about market share. While our revenues from China are really immaterial, we did just have our best ever quarter [in China].”“
So while a stance against censorship is laudable, a stance against censorship at the cost of potentially millions of dollars in profits is unprecedented in corporate America and is deserving of nothing short of a Nobel Peace Prize for Larry, Sergey, Eric and the rest of the team at Google !
But all of this still misses one very important aspect about Google’s announcement. The very first reason they cited in Google’s announcement was :
” First, this attack was not just on Google. As part of our investigation we have discovered that at least twenty other large companies from a wide range of businesses–including the Internet, finance, technology, media and chemical sectors–have been similarly targeted. We are currently in the process of notifying those companies, and we are also working with the relevant U.S. authorities.”
I think Google intends this to be a warning about the the dire threat of cyber attacks and cyber warfare posed by China and should be regarded as an urgent wake-up call for America, Europe and the free world.
“The investigation ultimately uncovered a network of over 1,295 infected hosts in 103 countries. Up to 30% of the infected hosts are considered high-value target and include computers located at ministries of foreign affairs, embassies, international organizations, news media, and NGOs. ”
“Chinese authorities have made it clear that they consider cyberspace a strategic domain, one which helps redress the military imbalance between China and the rest of the world (particularly the United States). They have correctly identifed cyberspace as the strategic fulcrum upon which U.S. military and economic dominance depends. “
While Google does not directly implicate the Chinese Government in these attacks, their stance against China does indirectly indict the Chinese Government. All signs and evidence point to the Chinese Government’s invisible hand and tacit compliance in these attacks. This is Google’s way of drawing the attention of the entire world to this huge threat. Hopefully this will prompt corporations and governments in the US and worldwide that are complacent to strengthen and shore up their security systems and become more vigilant. As far-fetched and hyperbolic as it sounds, the cost of not doing this could be waking up one day to find total paralysis of critical infrastructure/services or worse – a nightmarish future where an authoritarian regime dictates how the world runs. As I mentioned in a previous blog post about the threat of cyber warfare from China :
” While it seems like a cliche to say that the next world war will be in cyberspace – all it takes is for one country to have a few skilled hackers, and suddenly the number of troops, the hardware, and the nuclear devices of the enemy don’t matter. What is really scary is that country is most likely going to be China. Not be an alarmist here – but you know what happened the last time the intelligence services ignored vital clues and did not connect the dots.”
So I fervently hope that Google’s bold move will put in motion a chain reaction of counter-measures that will prevent an electronic 9/11 from happening. And more importantly halt a seemingly unstoppable adversary from achieving their stated goals of electronic world domination via cyber warfare. The skeptics will of course call this analysis an over-reaction and paranoia. But no one believed that a bunch of 20-year-olds could fly jumbo jets into skyscrapers either, although evidence of this possibility was staring at us all the time. The fact that the most powerful internet company in the world has validated the reality of this threat should be fair warning to all of us.
Update on Dec 4, 2010 : Leaked diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks now confirm that China was behind the hacking into Google’s servers. It also confirms that the attacks were co-ordinated by officials at the highest levels within China’s top governing body – the Politburo. Here is a link to the original Wikileaks cables published in the New York Times.