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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, January 24, 2010

Google-China feud displays search engine's power


By Jay Fidell

When my server was attacked last week by a faraway hacker, Google found out and promptly imposed an "attack site" pop-up on my sites, effectively shutting them down.

I didn't ask Google to do that, and I didn't agree that it could. How could one search engine company, among many, shut my site down without my agreement or permission? It was disruptive, but it was also impressive.

Google's power is undeniable. And Google is now showing us that it can publicly challenge national governments, even one of the most powerful governments on Earth, China. That's unprecedented and a game-changer.

BETTING THE FARM

China continues to pressure Google to censor Web sites and may well be blocking and hacking Google's algorithms and data on dissidents. Betting the farm, Google is threatening to pull out of China, the biggest Internet market in the world. It's a cyberwar, and Michael Drummond, Google's chief legal officer, has not held back in his reports from the front.

Stiff competition by Chinese companies must somehow also affect Google's strategy. Google has aspired to be the top search engine in China, but Baidu, with 60 percent of the market, has been a daunting competitor, just as Dangdang has been for Amazon and Taobao has been for eBay. Ironically, last week a group calling itself the Iranian Cyber Army hacked into and modified www.Baidu.com.

Thomas Friedman of The New York Times bets on Google. He identifies a tension between "Command China" and "Network China," and writes that "if China forces out Google, I'd like to short the Chinese Communist Party." Google's pullout would benefit Baidu, but would result in a long-term loss of face for Command China.

POLITICAL POWER

Global corporations like Google are a new model in the world, and they are not to be trifled with. If more money and information pass through their hands than through the hands of some governments, why should they not be as powerful? After all, Google is a $175 billion company.

Until now, even China didn't know the power of Google. A search engine seems innocent enough, but a search engine used every day by most of the users in the world has more influence than you think. And when you add Google apps, it's not just information it's political power.

NOT THE END OF IT

Like Friedman, we might expect Google to win this facedown, or at least to settle on terms that will reject censorship and protect users. But whatever happens, that won't be the end of it. Google will suffer the same pressures, and we will all suffer the same risks, going forward.

We have little choice but to entrust our data to Google, and perhaps we don't appreciate the risks of allowing prying or repressive governments to meddle with it, even in our own country.

Despite Google's herculean efforts at data security, the data it collects will always be a magnet to government, and the more that government wants Google to suppress or surrender it, the more threatened we should feel.

ALWAYS CHANGING

The free flow of information is an essential element of the Internet, and the right of privacy is a cornerstone of a free society. When Google challenges China on these issues, it speaks not only to China, but to all governments everywhere. What we are seeing in Google is not only the new power of the Internet, but a new profile in courage and leadership.

So we should be appreciative to Google for taking its stand, whether just for ethics or economics or both. We should support Google when these issues come up, we should encourage it to stand firm as to justify our continuing trust, and we should commend it when it does.

The Internet is always changing, however, and we need to be just a little concerned that one day Google, if there is then still a Google, might not be able to say no.

Jay Fidell is a business lawyer practicing in Honolulu. He has followed tech and tech policy closely and is a founder of ThinkTech Hawaii. Check out his blog at http://thinktech.honadvblogs.com/.