Google's determination to play in the Chinese Internet search market - even if it meant censorship and various forms of surveillance - has been a source of discomfort to those of us who wished (in the spirit of eternal optimism) that it was possible for a company to live up to the moral aspirations it set itself: in this case Google's famous 'Don't be evil' injunction on its own behaviour. By Ian Scales
So is its latest spat with the Chinese authorities a sign that - just maybe - it will 'get up, stand up', for its users' rights? Or is it just giving up the fight?
According to Google, after three years' operation in China, during which time there has been controversy about how and whether Google should play along with the censorship requirements imposed by the Chinese government, it is about to close its operations because of hacking attempts into email accounts of Chinese human rights activists (guess who it thinks is behind that?) and attempts to limit free speech on the Web. And it's not just Google being targetted either. The company claims at least 20 other Web companies had been hacked and harried by the Chinese authorities.
There is a long history of difficulty being encountered by Web service providers in China. Companies to come to grief in the past when trying to play the Chinese game have included Skype (Skype Outed: software set to snitch mode to please Chinese government)
And there has been ongoing Chinese sensitivity over content (see - China to embed web censorship software into all computers).
These difficulties clearly continue without improvement and the basic message from Google seems to be one involving the words 'tether' and 'end of'.
David Drummond , senior vice president of corporate development and chief legal officer at Google said it had all "lead us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China."
"Over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all," he said. Drummond indicated that should these discussions fail, it would have to shut down Google.cn, and potentially its offices in China.
For many observers Google's famous 'Don't be evil' motto is just a brazen fig leaf, badly disguising the usual corporate bad behaviour and money-grubbing motivation exhibited by all its peers and therefore all the more disgusting for it.
So for them there can be only one reason Google is making growling noises about leaving the Chinese Big Brother House. That is: because it's not making much headway in China it is saving face by getting out on a moral pretext. With just 30 per cent market share it's deciding to walk away.
In many markets a 30 per cent share is enough to be classified as a player with significant market power and to have the competition authorities banging on the door seeking documents.
True, Google by no means dominates in China: that honour goes to Baido which, according to researchers Greenlight search, has 59 per cent of the Chinese market. But with 30 per cent of what may soon become the world's most important market, Google has a really strong position, way ahead of its usual rivals Yahoo (6 per cent) and Bing (4.5 per cent).
It could be that Google is playing up to its corporate mission statement (or whatever the motto is) and is determined to either do the relatively right thing in China or to get out while it still has a shred of self-respect left. If this story does end in eviction, it might be seen as Google's finest hour so far.
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