<IT WORLD> Google fired up over China's great wall
By Martin J Young
HUA HIN, Thailand - Google's announcement that it is considering pulling out of
China following the discovery of a cyber attack which targeted its corporate
infrastructure last month may be a bluff; or it may now have little option but
to follow through with withdrawal from the world's biggest Internet market,
given the unlikelihood of Beijing changing its media rules to satisfy one
The highly sophisticated digital assault originated in the People's Republic as
hackers set their sights on e-mail accounts of Chinese human-rights activists
and dissidents hosted at Gmail.
The chief legal officer for Google, the world's biggest Internet search
company, released a statement confirming, "These
attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered - combined with the attempts
over the past year to further limit free speech on the web - have led us to
conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in
At least 20 other large companies in business, finance, technology, chemical
and media sectors were also targeted, Adobe among them. Google claims the
objectives of the attack were not achieved, as only two Gmail accounts were
compromised and only limited information such as dates and subjects were
The attacks were likely to be the result of phishing scams and malware rather
than security holes in Google's platform. Gmail users in the US and Europe that
are advocates of human rights in China could have also been targeted. Google
was quick to reassure its enterprise clients that cloud computing is still
safe, along with all of their corporate data sitting on Google's servers
A meeting with the Chinese government to discuss these incidents and the future
of the company in the country is set to take place in the coming weeks. This
attack seems to be the tip of the digital iceberg and a number of other issues
including heavy handed censorship, a huge pirate software and mobile-phone
black market, and recent apologies made to Chinese authors by Google for
digitizing their works without permission could be further catalysts for the
Google started operations in China in 2006 with the launch of its Google.cn
search portal amidst controversy and condemnation from the West for its
decision to censor search results in compliance with the Chinese government's
draconian web filters.
The company motto "Don't be evil" was brushed under the digital carpet in
Google's ever-striving quest for greater profit from what has become the
world's largest Internet population. Fresh statements from company
representatives in light of the recent cyber attacks have been to the contrary.
Google did not specifically accuse the Chinese government, but it did state
that it was no longer willing to censor or filter results on its Chinese search
portal. This decision may result in the closure of the website and the
termination of operations in the county as it is unlikely that the doors of the
Great Firewall will be opened for Google, or any Internet company, in the near
At present, the decision to pull out will not make too much of a dent in
Google's vast coffers as it had only had about 35% of the search market in
November 2009 compared to around the 60% mark at China's own Baidu (who also
self-censors) according to research firm ComScore (various sources differ on
precise figures). However, considering its relentless appetite for expansion
into other areas of the Internet and alternative business ventures, such as
mobile phones, the move will hurt the company in the long term as more and more
Chinese spend larger percentages of their lives online.
The decision could also affect its competitors and their China-based operations
by leaving them a difficult decision to make should the government reject
Google's request for an uncensored search engine.
Microsoft, which is reaching more of the market with legal copies of its
software on many of the 40 million computers sold in China per year, has just
launched a Chinese edition of its search engine Bing and now partners Yahoo in
One possible outcome if Google puts its money where its mouse is, and any other
large Internet companies follow, would be the Chinese government having an even
tighter control over the flow of digital information to and from the country
and the Great Firewall growing even higher.
Also hacking its way into the news this week was a group that calls itself the
Iranian Cyber Army. It successfully managed to take down Baidu, China's leading
search engine. The same group attacked the Twitter website last year as it was
heavily utilized by Iranian opposition supporters. Following the hack, Baidu's
website was redirected to another attributed to the Iranian Cyber Army for
around three-and-a-half hours.
Twitter is banned in China and Baidu tows the line with Beijing by censoring
its content, so the motivation for the attack is still unclear; as the two
countries are allied, the rumors surrounding the cyber-skirmish have been
widespread and imaginative.
Retaliation soon followed, with nationalist Chinese hackers attacking Iranian
websites and posting warnings on them; their targets, which included the
website of a national wrestling team, were apparently at random; the content
was in Farsi.
In a possible sign of economic recovery, global PC shipments rose by 15.2% in
the fourth quarter of last year according to industry analysts IDC. Research
firm Gartner recorded an even higher figure of 22.1%. Consumers in the world's
largest personal computer market snapped up low-cost notebooks over the holiday
period adding to the 24% rise in shipments to the US from the same period in
the previous year.
Hewlett Packard remained the global top PC seller with a 21% market share,
followed by Taiwan-based Acer with 13.4%, then Dell (12.4%), Lenovo of China
(9.2%), and Japan's Toshiba (5.6%) in fifth spot. Apple did not rank in the top
five global PC companies but did rank fifth in the US alone.
The figures were boosted by a surge in popularity for net-books, which are
benefiting from better specifications due to advances in chip technology and
battery efficiency. Microsoft's launch of Windows 7 in October last year also
helped with the sales recovery and a little more optimism for the industry in
Intel, which supplies chips to more than 80% of the world's computers, on
Thursday added to optimism in the technology market, reporting a
higher-than-expected increase in fourth-quarter earnings and higher gross
margins. The company also forecast that profits this year would hit a 10-year
Martin J Young is an Asia Times Online correspondent based in Thailand.