[UPDATED - I've added a response to reader comments to the end of the this post. Scroll down to find it.]
Eighteen months ago I received an email from an acquaintance who happens to work with a large NGO in China. It included an attachment, and since I was familiar with the person who sent it to me, I elected to open it. Within seconds of doing so, my security software notified me that it was malware and quarantined it. At that point, I took a closer look at the email message and noticed several details that should’ve indicated to me that this wasn’t a message from my friend, but rather was a very sophisticated phishing attempt. In any case, I contacted this acquaintance immediately and told him what had happened. He responded with thanks and told me that he’d received similar messages from dozens of other people in his address book, and that he – and his NGO – were going on the assumption that they’d been hacked.
For obvious reasons, I’m not going to identify this person or his organization. And, in fairness, I really can’t say for certain whether or not the origins of the attack on my friend’s address book (and me) originated in China, or had anything to do with China at all (an investigation of some kind was undertaken, but I have no knowledge of the conclusions). But this I do know: the person in question, and his NGO had operated for years in China prior to being hacked, been subject to all kinds of pressures prior to being hacked, and yet nothing about the email hack made them question a commitment to working in China for many years more.
Yesterday, after Google announced that it was reviewing “the feasibility of our business operations in China” in light of hacker attacks on gmail, I kept thinking of this person, and his NGO, and his absolute determination to make it work in China regardless of the hurdles. I also found myself fixated upon this passage from Google’s announcement:
Second, we have evidence to suggest that a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. Based on our investigation to date we believe their attack did not achieve that objective. Only two Gmail accounts appear to have been accessed, and that activity was limited to account information (such as the date the account was created) and subject line, rather than the content of emails themselves.
Third, as part of this investigation but independent of the attack on Google, we have discovered that the accounts of dozens of U.S.-, China- and Europe-based Gmail users who are advocates of human rights in China appear to have been routinely accessed by third parties. These accounts have not been accessed through any security breach at Google, but most likely via phishing scams or malware placed on the users’ computers.
In the first paragraph, Google doesn’t identify the location of the human rights activists in question. However, in the second it clearly states that some of those who were attacked via phishing scams are China-based gmail users. And so it raises a question for me: are any of those activists taking the same course of action as google? That is to say, has the gmail breach forced human rights activists in China to review the “feasibility of their operations?”
I don’t have any knowledge as to whose gmail accounts were breached, but I think it’s pretty safe to assume that the answer – at least among the human right crowd – is going to be a uniform ‘no.’ That is, they will continue to work in China, regardless of email breaches and government barriers. Why? Every NGO, and every activist, has a different different set of reasons, but I’m fairly certain that breached email accounts are among the lesser, and least surprising difficulties, that they encounter in the course of doing work to which they’re deeply committed. They believe that if you want to be a part of China’s future, then you’d better be a part of China now.
If you were to go by the language in Google’s statement from Wednesday, and some of the post-statement media reactions (“China Enters its Bush-Cheney era” or – gasp! – “China hackers hit media activists and companies online“), one might be under the impression that China has just shifted from its Age of Enlightenment, to a Reign of Terror. To be sure, Internet controls have tightened in the last year, but I find it very difficult to accept the suggestion that China has suddenly become a more repressive place. It is what it is, and has been for several years, and NGOs, at least, will continue to manage the difficulties.
Google has apparently chosen not to manage them, and in doing so has become a sort of hero in the eyes of some who seem to think that walking away (or threatening to walk away) from China is an effective means of influencing it. Perhaps so. But I can point dozens of NGOs, activists, and companies who’ve experienced harassment and much worse, and for much longer than Google, and who’ve chosen to stay because they want to be a part of the dialogue about China’s future, and are already making a contribution to it. Google’s threat to take its servers and go home suggests that – after a mere four years – it doesn’t share their commitment. That’s their choice, that’s who they are, but let’s be clear about one thing: there’s not a damn thing heroic about it.
[1/15/09 - A Response to Reader Comments
This post has generated an unexpectedly large number of comments, with a significant percentage of them disagreeing with my premise. Of those, many take issue with the post by pointing out that I’ve compared apples to oranges, ie Google is a corporation, not an NGO. For example:
“Google is an internet company. Its mission is not to improve aspects of life in China but to offer information to people. If it cannot do that on anything like its own terms in a particular place then it is under no moral obligation, as far as I can see, to continue.”
“First, Google is not an NGO but rather a company with responsibility to its shareholders and stakeholders to operate as a profitable enterprise and create long term economic value. Google cannot and should not stay in China just to put up a fight with the government.”
“Likewise with NGOs – their mission is to serve in China. On the other hand, the mission of a corporation like Google is to make money and deliver maximum profits to shareholders. Making money in a way that imperils the work of human rights activists is frankly unethical and I couldn’t be happier that Google has made the decision it has.”
This is a reasonable and self-evident position to take, and I’d be sympathetic to it but for the fact that it isn’t the way that Google views itself. From the beginning of its China operations, Google has made a set of very NGO-like justifications for its decision to play by China’s rules, all of which come down to this idea: Chinese internet users are better off with a neutered Google, than no Google at all. As a corollary and justification for that, Google has – up until this week - cited the immense transformative effects that the internet has and will continue to have on China. For better or worse, Google has justified its presence in China by claiming – perhaps disingenuously – that it’s not just about the money. From my reading, this very NGO-like approach to China was best framed in the testimony that Elliot Schrage, then Google’s Vice-President for Communications and Global Affairs, gave to a committee of the US congress on February 15, 2006. It’s worth reading in full, especially for a very detailed picture of how Google views itself in relation to China. But this passage, I think, gets at the crux of how Google was presenting itself in 2006, as it prepared to enter the China market:
Let me dig a bit deeper into the analytic framework we developed for China. Google’s objective is to make the world’s information accessible to everyone, everywhere, all the time. It is a mission that expresses two fundamental commitments:
(a) First, our business commitment to satisfy the interests of users, and by doing so to build a leading company in a highly competitive industry; and
(b) Second, our policy conviction that expanding access to information to anyone who wants it will make our world a better, more informed, and freer place.
Schrage adds a third commitment – “be responsive to local conditions” – and then spends the rest of his testimony advocating for how Google.cn fulfills all three of these quite laudable principles, with a particular emphasis on the second. Now, some of my readers might take a look at the second of Google’s commitments – the self-described policy conviction – and brush it off as nothing more than PR to justify the untrammeled pursuit of the first.
But I think it deserves to be taken seriously, along with the company’s oft-repeated “do no evil” mantra, as a guidepost for explaining the company’s actions. And if it’s taken at face-value – and, let’s recall, it was spoken under oath to a committee of the US Congress – then we have to understand that Google views itself as something more than just a profit-making engine, but rather as a force for a “policy conviction” unbuckled from any profit motive. And that conviction, as expressed by Google’s congressional testimony, is that “expanding access to information to anyone who wants it will make our world a better, more informed, and freer place.”
If that weren’t one of Google’s three convictions, I’d suggest that somebody adopt it as the mission statement for an NGO focused on expanding access to information worldwide.
Policy convictions belong to NGOs and activists, not to corporations. Yes, many American corporations have them, but rather than spend shareholder dollars directly on accomplishing them, they fund think tanks, study groups, and lobbying organizations. Google is different – by its own account. It arrived in China to make money, but it also arrived to expand access to information regardless of the profit motive.
The Chinese government doesn’t share Google’s policy conviction. In fact, it is so far opposed to it that – for decades! – it has actively tried to disrupt the free flow of information, sometimes overtly, and sometimes via means – such as espionage – that are not so obvious. Any NGO or seasoned corporation that operates in China knows this from the moment they arrive. Google, too, having been advised by experienced China hands, knew it, too. But, unlike other organizations that arrive in China with policy convictions that they’d like carry out, Google has decided after a relatively short while that they were wrong to come at all, that the regulatory situation is just too tough.
Fair enough. That’s their call. But again, I see nothing heroic in pulling back from a project – bringing Google to China – that was, in fact, playing a postivie role in expanding access to information in China. No doubt, internet restrictions have tightened over the last year. But any China-based NGO with more than three years experience will tell you the same thing: the pursuit of policy convictions in China has peaks and valleys. Don’t get too excited at the peaks and don’t get too distraught at the valleys. It’s the long-term trends that are in your favor and – until this week – I thought they were in Google’s favor, too.]