If there is one word to sum up the current situation of Google in China, that word is confusion.
In the course of 24 hours, the US internet company’s web search services for the Chinese market went from working properly; to dysfunctional; to working properly again; and back to dysfunctional. In a development proving unsettling to its users and customers, it appears Google is struggling to understand what is going on.
Late on Tuesday, China time, Google took responsibility for blockages that had occurred during the evening, only to correct itself and blame the Chinese firewall instead.
The company set up a status page, to let users know how its Chinese services were performing. On Wednesday night in Beijing, after a day during which a large number of seemingly random, harmless searches continued turning up nothing but browser errors, all the page offered was that the issues that had occurred 24 hours earlier “seem to be resolved”.
This helplessness in dealing with the fallout of its move last week to stop censorship of its Chinese search engine has triggered criticism from some observers, who call Google’s move short-sighted and say the company should have known better than to challenge Beijing.
“Google’s move smacks of hubris,” says Abe Peled, chairman of NDS, a digital television service provider which operates in China.
Chinese technology experts say that while it is impossible for outsiders to know exactly what is causing the chaos at Google’s services, it bears the fingerprints of Beijing’s censors.
“Google has met its match in the Chinese government,” says the founder of a social networking services website. “The disruptions are almost certainly a deliberate strategy of those who manage the web here. Confusion and lack of information are the whole point. That’s how it works.”
William Long, a software engineer and technology blogger in Shenzhen, says the situation is “scaring Google users away, and many are switching to [rival] Baidu already”.
He adds: “This uncertainty is likely to continue, gradually worsening the user experience. If the firewall doesn’t change its strategy, Google’s user base in China is going to be eroded.”
For its part, Google had clearly been expecting retaliation since it switched its Chinese search service to Hong Kong eight days ago. While it attracted strong initial criticism from some officials, by the end of last week the company’s services were still operating with little interruption.
However, executives at Google remained wary. David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer, warned last week that it was too early to draw any conclusion from the immediate response, and that it would take some time to get a clear picture of how the authorities would view Google’s defiance.
The unease among western observers has been deepened by news of two other recent waves of cyberattacks, which will come as no surprise to internet security experts. This month, 28 per cent of all targeted attacks – malicious e-mails sent in small volumes aimed at gaining access to sensitive data – originated in China, says Paul Wood, an analyst at Symantec.
Those most frequently targeted include experts on Asian defence or trade policy; human rights activists and researchers; academics and experts on Asian foreign policy – a close match with the targets of the two latest attacks.
However, it has been suggested that Google’s problems in China should only be linked to the cyberattacks and who is behind them – not with any complaints about Beijing’s internet censorship
The company’s statement in January cited both Beijing’s increasing censorship and a wave of cyberattacks apparently from China as reasons to reconsider its strategy in the country.
Sergey Brin, one of Google’s founders, has said the cyberattacks were the straw that broke the camel’s back.
But foreign policy experts argue that if such cybersecurity issues are to be addressed more efficiently, they need to be separated from censorship.
“We may not like the fact that China censors, but they are not going to discuss that with us,” says a US security expert. “If we want to fight hacking, we need to talk about hacking and hacking only.”
Additional reporting by Richard Waters in San Francisco
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