Google's China problem (and ours)

The Chinese cyber attack on Google and others raises big issues about how, or whether, tech firms should do business there

Well, that was the biggest news bombshell to land in quite a while. Google reveals that it's been hacked by Chinese cyber attackers and says it will no longer play along with China's repressive Internet rules.

China's response? See ya, Big G. Don't let the bamboo curtain hit you on the way out.

[ This isn't the first time China and Western companies have locked horns, as Cringely points out in "China: Web surf at your own risk." | And stay up to date on Robert X. Cringely's musings and observations with InfoWorld's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

Now it seems the apparent agent of Google's undoing was a zero-day flaw in Internet Explorer. (That's it -- it was really all part of Microsoft's fiendish plan to take down Google. Conspiracy theorists, start your engines.) Microsoft has confirmed the flaw, which affects IE in all current versions of Windows, but hasn't said when it will issue a patch.

IE: It's the gift to hackers that keeps on giving. Clearly there's enough irony here to fill 1.3 billion daily supplements.

The attack, dubbed "Operation Aurora" by security researchers at McAfee, was far too sophisticated and too targeted to be the work of amateurs, Google concluded. So it made a very public show of walking out while not actually accusing the Chinese government of anything -- in all, nicely played.

But while the media hands out atta-boys to Google for standing up to Merciless Ming and his evil cronies, I feel compelled to ask: What about the last five years while Google has been doing business behind the Great Wall? Have we not had plenty of other examples of China using technology to harass and imprison its citizens? Did Google finally manage to translate "Don't be evil" into Mandarin?

The uncensoring of Google.cn -- which effectively means the decommissioning of it by those behind the Great Firewall -- was retaliation for being hacked, not a principled stand against China for sitting on the rights of its citizens like a fat drunk on a bar stool. This is ultimately about money, not morals.

Even so, Google's decision to say "up yours" to the Chinese government affects all the big players in high tech, and not just the 30-odd companies that were attacked. As I write this, we know the names of only three besides Google: Adobe, Juniper, and an L.A. law firm representing Cybersitter in a suit against the Chinese government. The Washington Post adds Yahoo, Symantec, Dow Chemical, and Northrup Grumman to the list, though none of those companies are talking.

But you know if they targeted Google, they had to have also gone after Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, and other big players. So the question becomes, what do those guys do? Do they pull a Google and give Beijing the finger? Or do they keep their lips zipped and hope the problem goes away, unwilling to let go of 1.3 billion potential customers?

Microsoft has already weighed in: It's staying in China, cyber spies or no (more evidence for you conspiracy fans out there). Not that anyone actually pays for Microsoft products over there -- or at least pays Microsoft for them. No matter; they've elected to fight software piracy "from the inside." They probably calculated that boycotting Beijing would have little to no impact on their image; people who hate Microsoft will continue to hate Microsoft, while the MSFT fanboys will endorse any move they make.

(At least one other small Web company is following Google's lead, though I'm not sure how much impact it will have.)

Too bad. Because if the tech industry really wants China to change the way it does business, a unified front might have been more effective. If the big U.S. tech companies all elected to stop aiding and abetting the Chinese in their attempts to rewrite history as it happens -- and tacitly condone attempts to steal our nation's intellectual property, one of the few areas where we still lead the world -- it would be that much harder for them to do it.

Should other tech firms boycott Beijing? E-mail me: cringe@infoworld.com. But don't blame me if the Chinese start spying on you.

This story, "Google's China problem (and ours)," was originally published at InfoWorld.com.

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Robert X. Cringely

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