Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Google vs China: upping the ante on industrial espionage

One of the big business ethics stories of the last month has been Google's announcement in mid January of a 'new approach to China' following reported attacks on the company's IT infrastructure from inside the country. Google's announcement spoke of targeted attacks on the email accounts of known human rights activists, both within and outside China, as well as other security breaches of Google and 'at least 20 other large companies'. Whilst the announcement of this degree of hacking would have been cause for concern, the explicit link to the surveillance of advocates of human rights in China was positively incendiary. Google was not just talking about regular industrial espionage here but about state-sponsored spying for political purposes. So suddenly the company had launched itself into a diplomatic row - albeit one between a company and a government - rather than its usual commercial scrapes.

The announcement didn't just make the headlines because of Google's allegations though. The company dropped another huge bomb by declaring that it would no longer continue to operate a censored version of its search engine in China - despite being required to by the Chinese authorities. 'Over the next few weeks' the company announced, 'we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.'

Since the furor over Google's announcement blew up a couple of weeks ago, numerous commentators have offered their view on what's going on. Many have focused on Google's ongoing troubles in securing in market leadership in China, (suggesting that the human rights concerns have been used as a smokescreen behind which to withdraw gracefully from a commercial failure), while some have presented it as a belated switch to principled behavior. Some have even reckoned that Google is using the publicity around the announcement to build awareness and brand loyalty in China. Working out the motivations of the company in picking such a huge fight in one of the world's most important markets is never going to be easy.

Three things that have particularly stood out for us though in all this are these, and we think they offer some salutary lessons for the brave new world of business ethics that is starting to emerge.

1. Google the 'political corporation'. Google clearly feels big enough and powerful enough to pick a fight with one of the most powerful governments in the world.... over human rights. On the one hand, this is great in that it means that we don't have to just rely on the government to protect our human rights. Some big companies (whatever their motivations may be) may also be willing to do some of the heavy lifting from time to time (at least when when it suits them). In some of our writings, we've refereed to this as the corporate administration of citizenship rights (yes, not the catchiest phrase we'll admit, but it does the job). On the other hand, isn't this an issue that national governments - especially the US Government - should be leading on, rather than, as Hilary Clinton did, simply backing-up Google once it has broken cover. Still, whatever one thinks about this Google is clearly feeling big and important ... and perhaps also starting to feel the heat that comes with such size. It could just be getting in quick before the ethical backlash over its mammoth reach begins in earnest. With its fingers in all kinds of free speech, privacy and intellectual property issues, Google is fast becoming the essential political corporation of the 21st century.

2. One step forward, two steps back for the Global Network Initiative. The global what??! If you've not heard of it, well you're not alone. In the latest bout of Google vs China, the initiative hardly even scored a mention in the media storm. However, the GNI was launched back in 2008 to much fanfare, and was promoted as the new approach that internet companies were going to deal with censorship issues after getting their knuckles rapped by the US government for bowing to the Chinese government's demands. Well, the 'new approach' before the latest new approach of course. As a partnership between Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and a score of NGOs and academic institutions, the GNI held out considerable promise for delivering a more responsible approach to a tricky ethics problem that frankly, was not going to go away fast. Fast forward to January 2010 and GNI advocates could well point to Google's announcement as proof that the initiative is starting to have a significant effect. After all, one if its members is making a major song-and-dance about its commitments to internet freedoms. The trouble is though, no one at Google thought to mention the GNI, or suggested that it played a role in its decision. More worryingly, one of Google's main partners in the initiative, Microsoft, publicly criticized the company for it stand in China. Oops, hardly a hallmark of a strong partnership.

3. Industrial espionage goes up a level. First, spies worked for governments, just like in the old movies. Then they worked for companies ... in fact just like in the (new) movies, such as the 2009 Julia Roberts' release Duplicity. But some of the big news stories now in industrial espionage involve both companies and governments. It's a kind of semi-industrial espionage. The Google story was just the latest and best known incident of this government-business espionage, but clearly its becoming an increasingly prominent feature of the contemporary business landscape. Just this last weekend, the Sunday Times in the UK reported on a leaked British security service document accusing China of bugging, bribing, and blackmailing UK business executives in an attempt to secure commercial secrets. Notably though, here the warning came not from a multinational corporation, but from the national security service (the irony of MI5 warning against spying was not lost on many of the newspapers' readers who commented on the story). Either way though, as these incidents suggest, the stakes being played in industrial espionage have been significantly raised. The question, of course, is how best to respond ... and whether governments or companies should be leading the line.

Photo by Mykl Roventine. Reproduced under Creative Commons Licence

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