Google threatens to pull plug on Google.cn

Well-wishers leave flowers at Google China HQ earlier today

Well-wishers leave flowers at Google China HQ earlier today

Google has announced that it might soon pull the plug on its operations in China, citing grave concerns over some recent, bizarre hack attacks, and lack of freedom of speech.

The official notice on the main Google blog reveals that a concerted hacking attack, which originated in China, has been using phishing and malware to access the accounts of human rights activists.

In the statement, the Chief Legal Officer of Google, David Drummond, detailed the attacks in full. It was not stated explicitly, but I read in the implication that these concerted attempts to get into the Gmail inboxes and Google accounts of these human rights activists was actually government sponsored.

In addition, Mr. Drummond called-out “the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web” in China, but did not name any sites in particular, not even mentioning its own sites which are blocked (of which there are many: Youtube, Blogspot blogs, and Picasa Web Albums, to name only three of over a dozen).

So, if Google.cn is canned, and its offices in China closed (they employ 700 people right now), it will also end Google’s enforced policy of self-censorship in China, whereby Google.cn results are ‘harmonised’ of critical, anti-government material, as well as any sex or nudity.

Already, many in Silicon Valley are praising Google for taking a stand against repression and sinister interference. But is that really what motivates Google?

The most recent figures suggest that Baidu has 75% of the search users in mainland China, to Google’s 18%. So, this being the cost-benefit analysis world of business, perhaps Google is deciding that Google China is not viable.

Or, more curiously, perhaps the GOOG is trying the Jedi mind-trick of folding a failing business while making it look like they’re the do-gooders.

Another possibility is that Google knows that threatening the authorities here is dangerous and counter-productive, and so this ‘threat’ is actually just a final shout of desperation; knowing that Google China is screwed, with no hope of being able to do business here without any state-level intervention.

So, what’s next? Google.cn will allow all search results as soon as this evening? A blockage of Google.cn – and maybe other Google domains, too – by the Beijing authorities? Perhaps the government will say “Don’t let the door hit you on the arse on the way out” and Google will leave, to a hero’s welcome in the Western media? Or, more forward-thinkingly, perhaps Google will do a ‘Yahoo!’ and pull out in order to focus on investment in Chinese start-ups instead?