I’m always surprised at the lengths that Google will go to in order to uphold its Don’t Be Evil motto. The start of last year saw them begin a very public battle with the Chinese government, leading them to put the pressure on by shutting down their Chinese offices and even going so far as to involve the WTO. Months passed before the Chinese government retaliated, in essence curtailing all the efforts that Google had gone to in order to operate their search engine the way they wanted to. After the initial backlash with a few companies pulling parts of their business out of China there really wasn’t much more movement from either side on the issue and it just sort of faded into the background.
In between then and now the world has seen uprisings and revolutions in several countries like Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Whilst the desire for change is stronger than any tool services like Twitter, Facebook and Gmail have been instrumental in helping people to gather and organize the movements on scales that would’ve taken much more effort than before. Indeed those in power have recognized the usefulness of these tools as they’ve usually been the first thing that gets cut when a potential uprising begins to hit critical mass. China is known for its harsh stance on protesters and activists and they’re not shy when it comes to interfering with their activities.
It seems that Google has picked up on them doing just that with Gmail:
Google has accused the Chinese government of interfering with its popular Gmailemail system. The move follows extensive attempts by the Chinese authorities to crack down on the “jasmine revolution” – an online dissident movement inspired by events in the Middle East.
According to the search giant, Chinese customers and advertisers have increasingly been complaining about their Gmail service in the past month. Attempts by users to send messages, mark messages as unread and use other services have generated problems for Gmail customers.
Screwing around with their communications is one of the softest forms of oppression that the government can undertake without attracting to much attention. Whilst I believe an uprising on the scale we’ve seen in the middle east is highly improbable in China, thanks entirely to the fact that the sentiment I get from people I know in China is that they like the current government, this doesn’t mean that they aren’t conducting operations to kill any attempts in it’s infancy. They’ve previously targeted other activists with similar attacks in order to gain information on them and that’s what sparked Google’s first outburst against the Chinese government. Why they continue to poke this particular bear is beyond me and unfortunately Google is in the hard position of either continuing to offer services (and all the consequences that follows) or pull out completely, leaving activists in China few options that aren’t at least partially government controlled.
There’s also rumors that the government is now implementing similar technology to their Great Firewall onto the cellular network. Some users are reporting that their phone calls drop out after saying certain phrases, most notably “protest”. Whilst I hesitate to accept that story whole heartedly (the infrastructure required to do that is not outside the Chinese governments ability) there is precedent for them to conduct similar operations with other forms of communication, namely the Internet. Unfortunately there’s no real easy way to test it (doing encrypted calls is a royal pain in the ass) without actually being there so unless some definitive testing is done we’ll just have to put this one down to a rumor and nothing more.
Google has shown several times now that it’s not afraid to go against the Chinese government if they believe their users are under threat from them. It’s unfortunate that there haven’t been many more companies that have lined up behind Google to support them but if they continue to be as outspoken as they are I can’t see them staying silent indefinitely. Of course many Internet services in China are at least partially controlled by the government so any native business there will more than likely remain silent. I don’t believe this is the last we’ll hear on the Google vs China battle but unlike last time I’m not entirely sure it will lead.