Google pulls a Conan O'Brien on China by threatening to yank the plug on Google.cn.

Media criticism.
Jan. 13 2010 1:33 PM

Google Pulls a Conan on China

Treat us right, the search engine shouts to its audience, or we'll yank the plug on Google.cn.

Google logo.

Because I think the world of Google, its products, and many of the people who work for it I don't mind saying that the principled stand it took yesterday against censorship has me rubbing my chin in bewilderment.

In its official statement, released yesterday, Google complained of an expert cyber attack on its corporate infrastructure originating from China that succeeded in stealing some of its intellectual property. Google emphasized that it wasn't the hackers' only target—at least 20 other major corporations were similarly assaulted. Google was particularly disturbed that the hackers appeared to have focused their attack on the Gmail accounts of Chinese rights activists and that the company had learned that the Gmail accounts of dozens of activists of human rights in China had been breached.

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Because of these attacks and other "attempts over the past year to further limit free speech" on the Web, Google stated that it was thinking about abandoning the country, where it launched its Chinese search engine, Google.cn, in January 2006. Furthermore, Google said that it had decided to stop censoring Google.cn search results—which is one of the prices all search engines pay to do business in the country—and that it looked forward to talks with the Chinese government about establishing the right to serve "unfiltered" results on Google.cn within the constraints of Chinese law.

"We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China," Google stated.

A gutsy move, yes. But without being cynical about the company's motives, a few questions are in order. Google knew all about the nation's top-down disregard for human rights when it launched Google.cn in 2006. It also knew of the police-state tactics China deploys against its critics, both directly and through its surrogates. The infringements that Google describes in its statement aren't aberrations—they're standard operating procedure in China.

So having discovered that China is being China by aggressively spying on Google customers around the world, why does Google now decide that its proper recompense for the recent intrusions and thefts is a censor-free Google.cn? Nowhere in its statement does Google hold the Chinese government responsible for the hacking, even if it strongly implies that is the case. So why abrogate the terms of doing business that it was so willing to accept in 2006? How are the hack attacks connected to the censorship?

Both Google and Conan O'Brien find themselves in bad situations they hope to make better by issuing soft ultimatums in the court of public opinion. O'Brien, stung by NBC's decision to move the Tonight Show back a half-hour to make room for a new Jay Leno show, could retaliate against the network by simply quitting. But then he'd forfeit millions owed to him on his contract. If he takes a payout to leave quietly, the network will probably prohibit him from competing in the late-night space. By politely and firmly rejecting the NBC show-switch, O'Brien has pushed the problem back onto the network. You made the mess, he appears to be saying, so you clean it up. Play me or pay me. As of this morning, O'Brien seems to be the sympathetic character, with NBC the heavies and Jay Leno "damaged goods," according to an anonymous source in the New York Times.

Likewise, by diplomatically lobbing the ball back into the Chinese government's court instead of belligerently closing up shop, Google seems to be saying, The ugly mess created by hack attacks are your responsibility. Make them go away and clean up the damage. Like Conan, Google's leverage is slight. But the company does seem to have public opinion on its side—the Web's ranking civil libertarians at the Electronic Frontier Foundation are applauding, China critic Rebecca MacKinnon is toasting the company via the Wall Street Journal, former China reporter Nicholas D. Kristof is cheering, and Yahoo—which exited the Chinese search engine market in 2005—is giving its competitor a public attaboy. Google hasn't been so widely hailed since it bestowed 1 GB of storage to users of its fledgling Gmail service in 2004.

Behind the Google and O'Brien suicide threats are explicit invitations to their more powerful adversaries to negotiate. Out of one corner of its mouth Google is saying that it won't censor Google.cn any longer, but out of the other it says it anticipates discussions with the Chinese government on how to "operate an unfiltered search engine within the law." By saying that he will not resign and will continue to work on the Tonight Show, O'Brien similarly presents himself as a reasonable negotiator. Work with us, both Google and O'Brien appear to be saying to their adversaries, Don't make us go.

I generally avoid making predictions because so few of them in the past have come true. But I don't think O'Brien and Google could have gamed their predicaments any better than they have. I expect O'Brien to stay in his current time slot or to walk away with a truckload of cash and no clause prohibiting him from competing, and I expect a face-saving scramble in China where the government announces that it's become partners in Web security with Google (and other countries), and Google, not necessarily on the same day, announces its satisfaction with the government's new filtering rules.