Google vs China: Round 2.

After the initial media flurry that was triggered by Google pointing their finger squarely at the Chinese government in relation to illegal hacking into their various systems there really wasn’t that much follow up. There was a considerable amount of talk about what effect Google pulling out would have on China, from the obvious increase of market share of other search engines to Chinese researchers losing one of their most valuable tools. Additionally the IT world covered many of the technical aspects such as attack origins and the vectors used but after Google mentioned that it was going to restart talks with the Chinese everyone pretty much gave up on the issue. The ferocity which Google used to deliver the initial message seemed to have disappeared.

That was until recently when Google started to flex its muscles in another arena:

March 3 (Bloomberg) — The Obama administration is weighing the merits of taking China’s censorship of Google Inc. to the World Trade Organization as an unfair barrier to trade.

The U.S. Trade Representative’s office is reviewing legal arguments advanced by two groups with links to Google, spokeswoman Carol Guthrie said. The Computer & Communications Industry Association and the First Amendment Coalition say China’s restrictions on Web access and content discriminate against U.S. Internet companies and online commerce.

Going to the WTO is “well worth consideration,” Nicole Wong, deputy general counsel of Google, operator of the most popular Internet search site, told reporters after a congressional hearing in Washington yesterday. Using censorship “in a manner that favors domestic Internet companies goes against basic international trade principles,” Wong told lawmakers.

Now there’s two ways to look at this. The first is that Google is championing information freedom, a principal they’ve held for quite a long time. Their original move into China was a trade off they received a lot of criticism for since they were breaking their own rules by censoring the search results. However they believed that it was better for them to be in China in some way rather than not at all and with over 380 million Internet users you can understand why. I don’t doubt that this ideal is part of their strategy with China but it would be naive of me to say it was the main reason.

Far more likely is the fact that maintaining a censored search engine in China negatively impacts their bottom line. Despite the obvious infrastructure requirements (which for Google would be rather small) there’s also a limitation on how their core business can operate within the bounds of China. Certain advertisers can’t be shown (heaven forbid you have skeletons in anything) and this impacts on Google’s profitability within China’s bounds. Arguing on the bounds that the censorship restrictions on Internet companies is a barrier to trade takes some of the focus off Google whilst still allowing them to get the results that they want. Make no mistake though, the main motivation for Google here is money.

It’s interesting to see their progression from a media hailstorm to a more subtle flex of political muscle. I’m dubious on whether or not this will have any noticeable impact on Google’s operations in China but I have to give them credit for not giving up when their initial attempt of shaming China into relenting didn’t work. The results of these allegations will bring the much needed attention of people with the ability to do something about the Internet situation in China. Whether or not that will end up doing good though is a story that’s yet to be told.

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