Questions For Google About Its China Partnership
As Andrew Brown recently reported on openDemocracy, Google collects mountains of IP-address-linked data about the search behaviour of all its customers. The more services you sign up for with Google (Gmail, Desktop, Homepage) the more Google knows about you, knowledge that it shares with third parties, for example, to make better-targeted ads. This is its core business model, and the reason why small ads are so successful. To keep our information flowing into the Googleplex, Google relies on a high level of either ignorance or (one hopes, more likely) trust from its users.
So our next question should be, how much data are you logging about your new Chinese customers, Google? And what will you do when the Chinese authorities ask you to hand it over? In fact, this question has already been put privately to a senior contact at Google by British web commentator Bill Thompson, who is awaiting a response.
One clue might lie in the feature of google.cn that sets it apart from the other global search providers, like MSN and Yahoo!, operating inside China. This feature – much lauded in the official statements given by Google on the day of the launch – is that google.cn tells its customers when their search results have been "filtered". How Google got that concession from the Chinese authorities might go some way to explaining why it took so long to release google.cn. But the question then has to be, what did Google offer in return?
China has plenty of technical know-how of its own, and is clearly prepared to use the network for its own ends. The Chinese authorities currently stand accused of endorsing attempts to hack into British and US government files, in what the UK Guardian called "a massive hit and run raid on the world's intellectual property to aid their booming economic growth". This heightens suspicions that denial-of-service attacks on Japanese websites, such as the official website of the controversial Yasukuni shrine, emanate from China and have the tacit approval of the Chinese authorities. China's censorship machinery goes far beyond the well-documented 50,000 officials and volunteers that watch the web to censor content, and incorporates choke points in the communications network that allow data to be filtered packet by packet.
Back in May last year, I asked this question: "If these two experts in internet traffic – Google in cataloguing it and China in censoring it – start working together, what can we expect?" The time for an answer approaches. In the meantime, we need to make sure we're asking the grown-up questions – about privacy, about data retention, about aspects of the deal Google have struck with the Chinese authorities that aren't hitting the headlines, and about the activities that will take place in Google's new research and development lab in China. And we need to ask them not just for the sake of the people of China, but for the sake of the internet as a safe space for free speech across the world.
Google must begin to answer these questions, especially if they expect us to believe their statements about commitment to the free access to information. Where does their data go? Do Chinese officials ever ask for and/or receive access to Google.cn's search logs, including IP addresses and private personal information? What level of disclosure does Google feel it is obligated to heed if and when the Chinese government requests information? Does Google feel it is obligated to inform Google.cn users when they release information to the Chinese government or any other government?