Analyzing the quarrel between Google and China raises questions of how the Web helps an oppressed country develop democracy, according to participants in an MIT panel discussion.
"The search engine has become an important tool to help the central government become more transparent," said panelist Xiaojian Zhao, a Chinese journalist studying at MIT on a fellowship, during the discussion Wednesday. "The search engine will aid Chinese democracy."
Yasheng Huang, China program professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management, agreed, but went a step further, saying that the Internet has fostered freedom and transparency in China more than the combination of foreign aid, the rise of the middle class and other economic growth factors.
"Google leaving China undermines that process," Huang said.
The clamor began last December when Google claimed that Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists were targeted by hackers using malware and phishing scams, while some accounts were breached. While no evidence has been uncovered to indisputably prove that claim, the Chinese government is widely believed to have sponsored the attacks.
Google reacted to the security issues in early January, stopping the censoring of its search results in China. The Chinese government mandated censorship as a condition of Google operating its search services there. In a blog post announcing its decision, Google said that it was reevaluating its Chinese business and realized that disobeying the government may force it to exit the country. To provide unrestricted search, Google redirected users from its Chinese Web site to its Hong Kong search engine.
Chinese Web users can access the country's top search engine, Baidu, but Huang said he does not trust the site because money influences its rankings. Since Google stopped filtering its results, instead of Baidu's top three results being paid rankings, the top 10 results are now paid, he said.
Ultimately, Google and China's dispute is a conflict between the Internet's basic premise of unrestricted access and the government's desire for control.
"The Internet was born on unfettered access, a strong value behind freedom," Huang said. "China has a different set of values, there is an emphasis on control."
And increasing levels of dissent among China's population have motivated the government to further tighten the Internet, said Craig Simons, a journalist who covered China for 10 years and is studying at MIT on a fellowship. The number of protests against the government over pollution and social conditions has increased as people use the Web to communicate by e-mail, blogs and bulletin boards, Simon said. This led hackers to target e-mail accounts of dissenters, he said.
"There is a massive liberalization at the bottom so the government is tightening controls at the top," Simons said. "The government has taken the position that they need to take control of content on the Internet."
Information the hackers targeted was located on servers in the U.S., not China, so leaving the country would not increase the safety of Google's data, said David Clark, a senior research scientist at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Google's threat to exit China is part of a negotiation strategy with the government, he said.
"I see this as a step in a process to moderate some alternative strategy with China," Clark said.
Despite Google's decision to stop censoring search results in China, panelists noted that the company still operates other businesses there beyond Internet search.
The company runs a research and development center in China, even though it decided not to continue offering search services that would be subject to regulations unpalatable to Google, said Edward Steinfeld, an MIT associate professor of political science.
"Google is neither in nor out. It is engaged with China," he said.
The Chinese government has yet to block google.cn or take direct action against the company, which some panelists attributed to the Chinese leaders' desire to keep the country's business environment hospitable to foreign companies.
"If you look at research and development innovations, they are produced by foreign companies," Huang said. "Going after Google would create the perception that the business environment is getting worse."
Steinfeld also expects the situation to "stay status quo," saying it "would be an escalation to block google.cn or the link to the Hong Kong site."
However, Simons noted that the government could retaliate by pressuring companies to end business arrangements with Google. He gave the example of China Unicom, one of the country's top mobile-phone service providers, which announced in March that it will not use Google's search engine on handsets running Google's Android mobile OS.