A Flashback to Google’s Controversy in China: The Ben Crox Interview (Part 4/5)

12 Jan 2011 in Interviews

I must begin with an apology.

The lighting in this interview was very dark! In Part 1 of the series, I dubbed my interview with Ben Crox ‘the dark interview‘ because of the poor lighting.

Now, let’s flashback in time. Back to the spring of 2010. At the time, Google was in the midst of a controversy with the Chinese government that dominated both political and business headlines across the world for many months. To learn more about the issue, I spent the final two segments of my interview with Ben Crox discussing the controversy from his perspective.

Here’s the story.

SO WHAT HAPPENED?

In December 2009, Google had a significant amount of intellectual property stolen due to an extremely sophisticated hacking incident that originated from China. When Google first entered the Chinese market in 2006, the company immediately faced one very politically and ethically-charged decision. The decision was whether to engage in self-censorship of search results and work closely with the government in doing so, or to instead allow the government to censor the results for them. Google chose the first option, and complied with the government – until the hacking incident.

At the time when Google first discovered it was hacked, their Chief Legal Officer David Drummond published a blog post explaining their philosophy at the time that they entered China:

We launched Google.cn in January 2006 in the belief that the benefits of increased access to information for people in China and a more open Internet outweighed our discomfort in agreeing to censor some results.

I agree with the position they took at the time. While there is definitely a moral obligation to do everything you can as an individual and a company to improve society, I think that first and foremost you need to respect a country’s rules. And this is what Google did.

Ultimately however, Google decided to stop working with the government to censor results. The company closed down its Chinese search engine Google.cn and redirected Chinese searches to its Hong Kong servers, Google.hk.

THE HACKING INCIDENT: ORCHESTRATED BY CHINA’S GOVERNMENT?

The Wikileaks cables that were released recently revealed that the sophisticated hacking into Google was orchestrated by the Chinese government. Upon researching the Wikileaks cables, the Washington Post found at least one source claiming that the year-old suspicion was true.

Washington Post reporter Ellen Nakashima wrote that:

A well-placed contact claims that the Chinese government coordinated the recent intrusions of Google systems. According to our contact, the closely held operations were directed at the Politburo Standing Committee level.

The Politburo Standing Committee is made up of the 9 most powerful members of China’s government. One target of the government-facilitated hacking were the Gmail accounts of many Chinese dissidents.

Currently, while Google’s .cn search engine is completely shut down, the company still has operating divisions in China’s largest cities. Reportedly, their marketing, advertising and engineering operations are still located in Beijing and Shanghai.

SOME NOTES FROM THE INTERVIEW

When I asked Ben about why so many hackers in China agree to work with the government to censor the Internet, he proposed that many are willing to do something for the government because they have the ability to become famous. And, the government pays them quite well.

We also discussed Google’s competitor (and the leading search engine in China) Baidu. At the time when news reports were just surfacing of Google threatening to shut down its search engine in China, Baidu was reported to have between 75-80% market share. Ben predicts that Baidu will be the biggest search engine in the world in terms of userbase someday soon. He also pointed out that many manufacturing companies in China still use Google because they want to be visible and known to the whole world; not just China.

GET TO KNOW BEN CROX

If you’re just joining this interview series, Ben is an entrepreneur from Hong Kong who doubles as Principal Consultant for Web Fusion Technology Ltd. and as an evangelist for the underground initiative Project West Chamber (whose sole mission is to overthrow China’s Great Fire Wall). You can follow Ben on Twitter here.

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What do You think? Did Google do the right thing?

P.S. Many thanks to Ben Crox for taking the time to do this interview. Also, I’d like to thank Emily Donohue for handling the camera, as well as the man Ting Gao for his ‘question from the audience’.