Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Google's Panoramio blocked by China's censors

Chinese censors moved against another part of the world wide web yesterday and blocked another little piece of Google's vast Internet empire. Much of what Google offers in terms of services has been blocked for many months, YouTube, blogger, and Picasa web for example. But bit by bit, access to Google applications have been eaten away. Yesterday it was Panoramio, a geo-location picture sharing service that Google acquired in 2007, and which was incorporated into Google Earth and Google Maps, that became the victim of the Great Firewall.

The block seemed to indicate that authorities were in little mood to budge on continuing to censor and inhibit the movement of the Internet in China. This also despite Google's announcement to stop censoring results in the Chinese version of its site with the added possibility it may leave China altogether. 

Talks are said to be ongoing between authorities and the Internet search giant. But all signs are that it is not looking good. Reuters reported yesterday that Google was investigating whether one or more employees may have helped facilitate a cyber-attack from China that Google said it was a victim of in mid-December.

The sources told Reuters that the attack, which targeted people who have access to specific parts of Google networks, may have been facilitated by people working in Google China's office. However a Google spokeswoman said, "We're not commenting on rumour and speculation. This is an ongoing investigation, and we simply cannot comment on the details." 

Security analysts say the malicious software, or malware, used in the Google attack was a modification of a trojan called Hydraq. A trojan is malware that, once inside a computer, allows someone unauthorised access. The sophistication in the attack was in knowing whom to attack, not the malware itself, analysts say.

Local media has reported that some Google China employees were denied access to internal networks after 13th January, the day of Google's bombshell announcement. Some staff were put on leave and others transferred to different offices in Google's Asia Pacific operations. Google has said it will not comment on its business operations.

The Google issue risks becoming another irritant in China's relationship with the United States. Ties are already strained by arguments over the yuan currency's exchange rate, which US critics say is unfairly low, trade protectionism and US arms sales to Taiwan. The accusations made by Google over the attempted hacking of Gmail accounts of Chinese dissidents adds to Washington's worries about Beijing's cyber-spying programme. In November congressional advisory panel said the Chinese government appeared to be increasingly attacks to penetrate US computers in order to gather useful data for its military.

In further revelations a journalists' advocacy group in China said on Monday that Google e-mail accounts of at least two foreign journalists in Beijing have been compromised. The New York Times said that hackers had changed Gmail program settings so that all messages would be forwarded to unfamiliar addresses. The users found the anomalies after checking their accounts following Google's announcement last week. 

Google's threat to shut down its China-based site Google.cn has alarmed many younger so-called 'netizens'. Although a Chinese version of the site may be hosted on US servers if the company were to move out of China, it is feared that it would be blocked by censors. Gmail and other services are already hosted outside of China, but these too may be restricted. There are already reports that Google has shelved plans to launch a Google Phone in China [caing business Chinese].

Google has lost much market share to Baidu, China's home grown search engine. However, while some Internet users claim Baidu serves Chinese users better in terms of search results, others argue that constant filtering and blocking of Google services has helped create this imbalance. This can be seen in much the same way that Facebook saw its user base in China dropped from over a million to less than 14,000 in the four months following its being blocked, giving China's own Facebook clone Xiaonei or Renren, as it is now called, the market lead. 

The battle between Google and Chinese authorities risked further escalation after US rival Yahoo was pulled into the dispute. Yahoo said that like Google, it too had been a target of similar attacks in China. Yahoo also said it supported Google's position that the cyber-attacks were deeply disturbing, and that violation of Internet privacy should be opposed. However, Yahoo's decision to support Google, prompted its own partner in China, Alibaba, in which Yahoo owns a 40% stake, to call the move "reckless" [BBC]. 

Meanwhile Washington was beginning to see political disturbances. One group of Republican lawmakers have already called on Cisco, Microsoft and Yahoo to follow Google's lead and conduct a full review of their business operations in China. They urged executives to engage in a similar review of their presences in China, saying not to do so is effectively "complicity with this kind of evil." [CNN Money]

The calls came as a senior White House official said it was too soon to determine what the impact on US-China relations would be as a result of Google's actions.

"I think it's honestly too early to assess what all the effects will be," National Economic Council Director Lawrence Summers said. "My sense would be that as the transformation from an industrial economy to a knowledge economy goes on, the free flow of information becomes more central, not just as a political issue, but as an economic issue," Summers told a small group of reporters. "So it seems to me that the principles that Google is trying to uphold are not just important in a moral and human rights framework but are also of very considerable economic importance. I think one can see that."

Rep. Frank Wolf (R., Va.) said Google's move reminded him of US companies withdrawing from South Africa during the Apartheid Era, rather than helping to serve the motives of that regime. "I urge others in the business community who have found themselves victim of China's spying and flagrant intellectual property violations...to join Google and speak out and take action," Wolf said at a press conference on Capitol Hill on Thursday. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) said in a statement Wednesday she hoped other companies would follow Google's lead.

There are also moves to push through legislation that would seek to place impediments on US technology companies cooperating with repressive foreign governments. The bill was approved by three separate House panels last year, and the Democratic leadership had committed to holding a vote on the measure.

"Google has brought the spotlight right back," Rep. Chris Smith (R., N.J.), the senior Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said. "When they say enough is enough, that ought to be a game changer on Capitol Hill."

The measure would require companies to inform the US State Department anytime they were requested by foreign governments to hand over customer information. It would also compel them to store personal identification information outside the repressive country to make it more difficult for governments to access, something Google already do. In addition it would establish an office within the State Department with a specific mandate to combat cyberterrorism.

It all adds up to a growing discomfort with China's oppressive regime. Even at a grassroots level there already talks of boycotting Chinese products, though it is difficult to see whether such moves will have any great effect, or even worry the Chinese government. But clearly the battle lines are drawn and China will not have an easy ride over the coming years if it intends to play an integral part in the global economy.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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