Sunday, November 15, 2009

China vs. Google: With the Roles Reversed

A couple of weeks ago, in late October 2009, the Chinese Communist Party's main newspaper, The People's Daily, accused Google of Internet censorship. The newspaper claimed Google was disrupting access to its website because for three days, Google searches returned a warning that their website might contain software harmful to computers. They went on to claim that Google was censoring their website on purpose because The People's Daily had just reported on Chinese authors' concerns about their rights regarding Google's potential creation of an online library of books. Even though the online library is a U.S. program, there are at least 570 Chinese authors and 17,000 Chinese written works included.

The Google spokeswoman who was interviewed denied that Google had anything to do with the malware warnings associated with the website of The People's Daily. She added that it was "absolutely incorrect" that the newspaper's reporting on the copyright dispute prompted the warnings. According to the spokeswoman, the warning was generated by software from, so it was an automatic function without any human interference. She suggested that the software made an error; it was not intentional by any means.

There must have been an error somewhere, since the newspaper website's administrators could not find anything wrong with the website that could have justified the malware warnings. In addition, the Chinese search engine Baidu did not register any similar warnings against the website. Then again, they don't use software from to detect malware sites like Google reportedly does.

I found the irony in this situation interesting. China is known for implementing tough Internet censorship, while Google is often portrayed as a victim of those censorship rules when operating in China. However, in this situation the opposite is true: China is now accusing Google of Internet censorship. How ironic that the reason behind most of the censorship on the Chinese-based is due to China itself.

Another point of irony is that Chinese authors are fighting hard for compensation from Google because they believe they are the victims of copyright violation. In China, much more significant types of copyright violation is rampant. Both online and offline pirated material of all types, especially of American movies, is widely available in China. When I visited China this past summer, shops in the marketplace had racks and racks of pirated DVDs, with everything from Harry Potter to the Discovery Channel.

One interesting piece of information came to my attention through a user's comment at the end of one of the articles. has posted its own contribution to this conflict between The People's Daily and Google. Its news report states, "The Google statement makes a small mistake in indicating that provided the software [that reported the malware warning]. In fact, Google's Safe Browsing team developed the system themselves." According to's FAQ, the company is only involved in helping website owners remove the warning on their own website through educating them about malware and website security. It specifies that Google independently determines which websites may contain malware and places the warnings in its search results.

From this information, it is hard to tell who is right and who is perhaps unintentionally twisting the truth to their own advantage. The Google spokeswoman could simply be misinformed about the role of in Google's monitoring of websites that may contain malware. Or, she could be intentionally trying to shift the blame off Google's shoulders, so it does not put the company in a bad light. On the other hand, could be doing the same - manipulating the truth in order to shift the blame over to Google, since's malware-detecting software making such a publicized mistake would be bad publicity.

All we know is that this is just another episode in a sequence of disputes between Google and China, except with the tables turned, which makes it quite interesting.


  1. Very interesting incident. See if there is a followup in the finger pointing between Google and StopBadware

    There are many ironies as you point out. The question is whether by being on both sides of the issues, the Chinese will soften their positions, or whether they just want to take advantage of whatever they can.

  2. I thought you did an excellent job pointing out the major direct stakeholders involved in the dispute (Google and China) as well as an indirect statekholder (StopBadware) who is involved in a separate dispute with Google.

    In the article above, China appears to value transparency through their accusation of Google, but as you point out, we cannot know for certain whether the intent behind that accusation is malacious or not. However, the Chinese government does obviously value power, precisely because a) it tries to consolidate power through one-party rule, b) it has empirically censored information to the public (e.g. Tibet, Darfur, Tiananmen Square Protests), and c) it uses state-run media (as you mention), which allows the CCP to spread propaganda.

    Google values transparency and accessibility (of information), but the CCP is questioning this in the dispute. Google values security as well (as evident in its dispute with StopBadware).

    Here are some other important indirect stakeholders involved in the dispute and their values:

    -The chinese people (this is a pretty heterogenous group, so here are a whole host of possible values: nationalism, human rights, quality of information, transparency, accessibility).
    -NGO's (human rights, transparency)
    -Western Countries/multinational corporations (diplomatic relations, human rights, trade)
    -Tibetans (human rights, transparency)

    Here are some places where the values conflict:
    Human rights vs. Power: If China ends up tarnishing Google's reputation by claiming that it censors information, Chinese citizens might view information about their government on Google more skeptically, not believing that their government is committing human rights abuses in Tibet, Darfur, etc.

    Transparency vs. Trade: If Google turns the tables on the CCP and highlights its hypocrisy, China could use the dispute as a precedent for why it shouldn't use the services of OTHER Western corporations in the future?

    Security and Diplomacy: Google's use of a security software (whether StopBadware provided it or not) that returned a warning that "The People" might contain malware ignited China's accusation of Google for censoring information. Because Google is a prominent corporation from the U.S., the tension might spill over to U.S.-Chinese relations.