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Wikileaks: Chinese Leaders' Vanity Searches On Google Led To Hacking

I’m almost positive that one day we’ll see “Wikileaks: The Musical” on Broadway (or perhaps the Opera at The Met). There are equal measures of comedy, tragedy and intrigue in the many thousands of documents dumped and disclosed last week. It’s perfect fodder for dramatic adaptation. And one set of documents that embody all of these dramatic and comedic qualities are those that shed light on the Google hacking incident in China.

In the days and months that followed the incident earlier this year Chinese officials vociferously denied any involvement. At the time it seemed to me that Google’s behavior strongly argued the Chinese were involved despite the denials. Otherwise why would Google refuse to comply with Chinese government policies around censorship if the government itself wasn’t somehow behind the attacks? It would be a strangely inappropriate and even irrational response. But it turns out it wasn’t.

The trove of Wikileaks documents confirm widespread state-sponsored hacking by the Chinese, not just into Google but all over the web and into US agencies and companies in particular. Google is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg or a single instance of a much larger pattern of espionage. But it wasn’t just about espionage for the Chinese, it was about taming the web and stopping the supposedly democratizing force it represented. (The documents also show how Baidu was the direct and intended beneficiary of Chinese government attempts to thwart Google.)

The Chinese have shown that Capitalism and Democracy don’t go hand in hand. They now appear to be showing that the internet can exist in China on their terms, something that many believed was not possible. Perhaps over time “internet=democracy” boosters will be proven right, but for now the dictators seem to have won.

One interesting question that arises from review of the China-Google Wikileaks documents is: who was more naive, Chinese leaders or Google?

Google historically took the position that its presence in China was helping to “open” it up and improve access to information. But that position now emerges as either totally cynical (to justify its presence in the world’s largest internet market) or very naive on Google’s part. The Wikileaks documents portray an unyielding Chinese government intent upon controlling the web and largely succeeding. According to an extensive piece in the NY Times:

Yet despite the hints of paranoia that appear in some cables, there are also clear signs that Chinese leaders do not consider the Internet an unstoppable force for openness and democracy, as some Americans believe

In fact, this spring, around the time of the Google pullout, China’s State Council Information Office delivered a triumphant report to the leadership on its work to regulate traffic online, according to a crucial Chinese contact cited by the State Department in a cable in early 2010, when contacted directly by The Times.

The message delivered by the office, the person said, was that “in the past, a lot of officials worried that the Web could not be controlled.”

“But through the Google incident and other increased controls and surveillance, like real-name registration, they reached a conclusion: the Web is fundamentally controllable,” the person said.

By the same token the Chinese appear equally naïve in some of these communiques. According to the Times, a May 2009 “cable” titled “Google China Paying Price for Resisting Censorship” showed that Chinese government officials were disturbed after doing vanity searches on Google.com and finding critical material:

Li Changchun, a member of China’s top ruling body, the Politburo Standing Committee, and the country’s senior propaganda official, was taken aback to discover that he could conduct Chinese-language searches on Google’s main international Web site. When Mr. Li typed his name into the search engine at google.com, he found “results critical of him.”

Here’s a verbatim excerpt from the “cable” in question:

XXXXXXXXXXXX said Politburo Standing Committee member XXXXXXXXXXXX recently discovered that Google’s worldwide site is uncensored, and is capable of Chinese language searches and search results. XXXXXXXXXXXX allegedly entered his own name and found results critical of him. He also noticed the link from google.cn’s homepage to google.com, which XXXXXXXXXXXX reportedly believes is an “illegal site.”

This shows a kind of incredible naïveté on the part of the Chinese leaders — that their censorship of the Chinese version of Google would somehow control information available more broadly at Google.com or that they had legal jurisdiction over Google.com. The incident highlights the persistent legal and cultural tension between the international nature of the web and domestic laws that conflict with it. The EU privacy challenges to Google and Street View are another instance of this but there are many more examples.

The Chinese authorities, having driven Google out and seemingly controlled the domestic internet (for now at least) , have enthusiastically embraced the web as a tool for espionage that they seem intent upon aggressively exploiting going forward. That should give pause to any and all internet companies doing business in the country. However the sheer size of the market (and the money making opportunity it represents) will likely trump all other values.

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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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