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Google Floats a Break with China

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, January 13 2010

Whoa, some potentially very significant news coming out of Google-ville this morning. The California-based company is now saying that security threats and government-mandated censorship has them reconsidering whether they should even be doing business in China, an enormous market for the company that also happens to represent a considerable chunk of the user base of the Internet. Email accounts of human-rights activists in not only China, but in the U.S. and Europe as well, were being infiltrated, says Google's Chief Legal Officer David Drummond in a blog post on the Google Policy Blog.

Drummond stops short of saying it, but it's a quick leap from his comments and from the idea that the company is laying at least part of the blame for the security breaches squarely at the feet of the government in Beijing. These recent events have Drummond saying that Google will both (a) stop censoring search results on Google.cn immediately and (b) review the feasibility of our business operations in China. The Times UK is reporting that the decision was made by, more or less, three men in a room: CEO Eric Schmidt, and company founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

It's the (a) part of that reaction that is particularly interesting, since it doesn't necessarily follow from the hacking attacks Drummond describes. Google's policy of working with the Chinese government to shape the Internet according to the Beijing's liking has always been discordant with it's "Don't Be Evil" mantra. But the company has, as we've noted recently, been more forceful in its rhetoric about being protectors of a free and open Internet, most recently with an openness manifesto of sorts posted on the company's policy blog. (The Times UK adds a business note: Google hasn't been particularly successful in China compared to the homegrown Baidu service, and a pullout would be a way to "save face.")

The Times UK also has a great tidbit that goes to show how technology impact today reaches the highest level of politics. Once those three guys in a room made a decision, they were sure to notify a fourth person: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.