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Google in China: the plot thickens

ChinaIt's been just five days since I last wrote about the Google-China soap opera, but so much has happened that it feels like weeks. Here are some of the developments.

Last week, Google's US corporate site suddenly displayed in Chinese. (A "bug", Google called it. Yeah right.) On Wednesday, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook traffic was suddenly redirected to Chinese servers, allowing international surfers a rare glimpse of how the Great Firewall operates.

Some unknown parties apparently hacked one of the DNS Root Servers in Sweden, causing traffic to flow in the wrong direction. YouTube also went completely offline for about an hour on Wednesday morning (that one was due to "a technical issue", according to Google).

Coincidence? No way. The nefarious machinations of the Chinese government? Maybe. My theory is that it's either pranksters out to cause trouble or techies inside China who are annoyed about Google's stance and flexing their geek muscle, independent of any top-down directives. In any case, I think we're about to see a whole more of this kind of thing before the dust settles.

The GoDaddy affair

Meanwhile, domain registrar GoDaddy is kicking up a little dust of its own. It announced it's no longer in the business of signing up people for .cn domains in China. The reason: the Chinese government's onerous requirements for registering domains, which include providing photo IDs, identification numbers and physical copies of signed documents for every registrant. Worse, GoDaddy says China wants it to go back and provide this data on its customers for the past six years. That's what prompted them to exit the mainland.

Yet both Wired and the ever-subtle Michael Arrington are calling GoDaddy's move "a publicity stunt", somehow equating it with the company's racy Super Bowl adverts featuring Nascar star Danica Patrick (all puns intended). So in other words, if you make sexy adverts, everything else you do doesn't count.

GoDaddy general counsel Christine Jones explains: "We were having to contact Chinese users to ask for their personal information and begrudgingly give it to Chinese authorities. We decided we didn't want to become an agent of the Chinese government."

On Thursday, Jones told Wired.com: "It would be very difficult to say we don't track publicity at Go Daddy because we do. This is not the Go Daddy PR machine cranking up. You can point fingers at us around the Super Bowl, but not here."

Principles and practicality

Personally, I don't think it's a principled stand as much as a practical one. Why endure the hassle and expense of doing something you didn't want to do in the first place? The fact that .cn registrations represent a fraction of a percent of GoDaddy's business probably made the decision a lot easier.

Meanwhile, the US Congress - ever alert for hot-button issues where it can make a lot of noise without actually having to do anything - jumped in with both feet, praising Google and condemning Microsoft for continuing to do business as usual in the Central Kingdom.

Arrington is defending Microsoft for not taking a principled stand on China. He also called Google's move a hypocritical publicity stunt (see "ever subtle", above).

Is Google's move a publicity stunt? Hardly. Is it hypocritical? Perhaps. But I think my reader GD summed it up rather nicely in an email:

"Whether Google is leaving China for altruistic reasons or not, it still shows it has more gumption than virtually any company and many governments. One is reminded of countries and companies being afraid to offend Nazi Germany until we went to war with them. At what point does greed justify anything of good in this world?

"I used to think of Google as too powerful a company, and that its power made it a concern for intellectual freedom. But outside of internal Chinese activists, Google is the only organisation in the world that is standing up to China....

"Where are our humanity and our ethics? We are taking part in a serious downfall if we do not stand up to China."

See also:

Great Firewall of China spreads overseas

Microsoft will not change China operations, official says

China: Google 'totally wrong' to stop censorship

Google stops censoring China search results

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