A search for images of Tiananmen Square on Google’s English-language website throws up iconic photographs of the 1989 massacre. The same query, typed on Google’s Chinese site, shows smiling tourists in present-day China promenading along that infamous square. In the eyes of a generation of internet-users unfamiliar with the sordid history of China, the scene could look like a postcard sent from a modern wonderland. This is the sort of filtering that Google abetted for four years since it entered a censorship agreement with China in 2006 as a precondition for setting up its operations there. Some of the Silicon Valley giants — Yahoo!, Cisco and Microsoft — had already joined the devil’s party. It is too well known that money and morals do not make the best bedfellows. So, some of the best brains in the West came together to create that magic key called Deep Packet Inspection, which became the cornerstone of the Great Firewall of China.
Perhaps it would be best to consider Google’s exit from China with a pinch of salt rather than by heaping unqualified praise on it. Evidently, Google’s decision to withdraw from China is not quite motivated by the goodness of its heart. It is largely a strategic move, dictated by exigency posing as conscientiousness. Google’s share of the Chinese market, in spite of the staggering number of internet-users in that country (380 million, according to the latest estimates), was a mere 29 per cent — which pales into insignificance next to the towering presence of Baidu, Google’s top rival in China. Shutting shop in China does not augur any major disaster for Google (except perhaps for its 800 employees who may have to go). In fact, the impact on the firm’s global revenue is going to be a mere 1-2 per cent of the total. On its part, China, having amassed trillions of dollars in foreign exchange, is not exactly anxious about losing the goodwill of the United States of America. And China also hardly cares if its goodbye to Google appears less than ceremonious. The true winner, in this situation, is Google. By categorically dissociating itself from the tyranny of the Chinese State, it will earn a great many brownie points in the West, over which its control is far more extensive and financially crucial. Google will now also be able to ride a moral high horse over all its Western competitors which would continue doing business with China even after this fiasco.
Human rights activists have long accused the Chinese State of hacking into their email accounts (tapping telephones and checking bank accounts are familiar aspects of such State surveillance). It is odd that an IT legend like Google took so long to raise similar allegations: infiltration into gmail accounts by third parties, which is yet to be proven, sounds like a useful alibi to justify Google’s belated do-gooding. With its pithy motto, “Don’t be evil”, Google knows best what an ethically slippery terrain the vast cyberworld can be. As the ban on Twitter in Iran showed last year, information technology often leads to the empowerment of a few at the expense of a great many.