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Gathering Clouds

Google’s reasons for leaving China aren’t as pure as they seem.

Google is being widely hailed for its announcement yesterday that it will stop censoring its search results in China, even if it means having to abandon that vast market. After years of compromising its own ideals on the free flow of information, the company is at last, it seems, putting its principles ahead of its business interests.

But Google’s motivations are not as pure as they may seem. While there's almost certainly an ethical component to the company’s decision—Google and its founders have agonized in a very public way over their complicity in Chinese censorship—yesterday’s decision seems to have been spurred more by hard business calculations than soft moral ones. If Google had not, as it revealed in its announcement, "detected a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China," there's no reason to believe it would have altered its policy of censoring search results to fit the wishes of the Chinese authorities. It was the attack, not a sudden burst of righteousness, that spurred Google’s action. (Click here to read what Andrew Sullivan calls the "best new blog.")

Google's overriding business goal is to encourage us to devote more of our time and entrust more of our personal information to the Internet, particularly to the online "computing cloud" that is displacing the PC hard drive as the center of personal computing. The more that we use the Net, the more Google learns about us, the more frequently it shows us its ads, and the more money it makes. In order to continue to expand the time people spend online, Google and other Internet companies have to make the Net feel like a safe, well-protected space. If our trust in the Web is undermined in any way, we’ll retreat from the network and seek out different ways to communicate, compute, and otherwise store and process data. The consequences for Google's business would be devastating.

Just as the early operators of passenger trains and airlines had, above all else, to convince the public that their services were safe, so Google has to convince the public that the Net is safe. Over the last few years, the company has assumed the role of the Web’s policeman. It encourages people to install anti-virus software on their PCs and take other measures to protect themselves from online crime. It identifies and isolates sites that spread malware. It plays a lead role in coordinating government and industry efforts to enhance network security and monitor and fight cyber attacks.

In this context, the “highly sophisticated” assault that Google says originated from China—it stopped short of blaming the Chinese government, though it said that the effort appeared to be aimed at discovering information about dissidents—threatens the very heart of the company’s business. Google admitted that certain of its customers’ Gmail accounts were compromised, a breach that, if expanded or repeated, would very quickly make all of us think twice before sharing personal information over the Web.

However important the Chinese market may be to Google, in either the short or the long term, it is less important than maintaining the integrity of the Net as a popular medium for information exchange. Like many other Western companies, Google has shown that it is willing to compromise its ideals in order to reach Chinese consumers. What it’s not willing to compromise is the security of the cloud, on which its entire business rests.

Nicholas Carr is the author of The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google. His next book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, will be published in June. This piece is cross-posted on his blog, Rough Type.


1) "America's Debt to Playboy," by Tom Bissell

2) "My Dream State of the Union Address," by William Galston

3) "Anthony Kennedy's Decisions Don't Make Sense. They Never Will," by Eric Posner

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