China confirms Google licence renewal
Google’s deal with Beijing to end a censorship dispute removes one irritant in US-China relations, but the two countries still face deep divisions over the internet’s future.
Google said on Friday that China had renewed its licence to operate a local website after the search engine giant agreed to stop automatically redirecting users of its China search site, Google.cn, to its uncensored Hong Kong site.
“Both sides gave up something, and in that sense it was a very elegant diplomatic compromise,” said Sheldon Himelfarb, a technology expert at the US Institute of Peace.
“But there is a sideshow going on that we need to keep looking at, and that is the disconcerting pattern of abuse of Internet ethics by the Chinese.”
The Google deal defused a spat between Washington and Beijing that blew up in January after Google said it might be forced to abandon the Chinese market because of hacking attacks and censorship concerns.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton led US officials in backing Google and demanding China explain the alleged hacking incidents, adding tension to relations beset by China’s currency practices, arms sales to Taiwan and other issues.
They were met by denunciations from Beijing, which rejected the accusations and marshalled Chinese state media to accuse Google of promoting a political agenda.
But with Sino-US relations already under strain and Google’s future in the world’s biggest internet market suddenly open to question, all sides opted to back off a bit in hopes a solution could be found.
The end result was Friday’s deal, which saw Google hold on to its Chinese internet licence and Chinese website while still enabling users—albeit with one more click—to access unfiltered search engine results through its Hong Kong site.
“It is a classic Chinese solution,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, a China expert at the Centre for Information Technology Policy at Princeton.
“Substantively they’ve changed nothing, but technically they have come into compliance with Chinese law.”
The deal has obvious benefits for Google, which hopes to use the Google.cn site to get into businesses such as music search and text translation, while its Android operating system for cellphones is already hugely popular in China.
Analysts said Beijing also benefited, sending a reassuring signal to foreign businesses that it will play by its own rules while keeping an innovative global company such as Google firmly in its domestic market—where Chinese companies can both compete with and learn from it.
“The Chinese government clearly sees internet and mobile innovation as a major driver of its global economic competitiveness going forward. They want Google there,” MacKinnon said.
For the United States, taking the spotlight off Google reinforces other positive developments, including steps by both sides to resolve the dispute over China’s valuation of its currency as well as its lukewarm but steady support for international pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme.
But analysts said the core Internet disagreement between Washington and Beijing over freedom of information and freedom of expression remained, as did mounting US concerns over Chinese cyber attacks and hacking incidents.
“China is a major factor driving the domestic debate about cyber security ... what the threats are, and how we are protected and who the possible attackers are. China is never far removed from that discussion,” said Adam Segal, a cyber security expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“It seems with the Google deal that all of the larger issues about censorship and hacking have been pushed to the side.”
But there may be signs of progress—albeit slow and uncertain.
Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, along with two other US senators, wrote in an opinion piece in the San Francisco Chronicle
“To be sure, the United States and China have sharply divergent views on Internet freedom. But we must not let these differences stand in the way of serious talks,” the senators said, urging US officials to incorporate the issue into the broader diplomatic dialogue between the two countries.
Drew Thompson, director of China Studies at the Nixon Centre in Washington, said that might be difficult given the highly opaque nature of both cyber spycraft and hacker culture on both sides.
With the US-China relationship both broader and under more pressure than ever before, he said it was important to seek common ground—and that resolving temporary upsets like the Google case could help.
“I’m not sure it’s a happy ending but everybody is happy it is ending,” he said. - Reuters