Wikileaks and The New York Times today released a set of US foreign service cables that document the various ways in which the Chinese government has purportedly sought to influence, harass, infiltrate and outright block Google’s operations in China. The cables date from 2006 to early 2010, from the earliest days of Google’s entry into China’s censored search engine market to just around the time the company decided to pull the plug early this year.
The cable most relevant to this blog is the earliest one in the set, dated November 7, 2006, titled “PRC claims high resolution imagery on Google Earth could aid terrorist attacks on China“. It reports on a meeting between the US embassy in Beijing and an unnamed Chinese government representative, who wanted the US government to “take action to get Google to reduce the resolution of the Google Earth images of China’s military, nuclear, space, energy and other sensitive government agency installations in order to deprive terrorists of potentially dangerous information”.
The cable confirms several suspicions that various posts on Ogle Earth have speculated on these past 5 years. Namely:
1. China tried to pressure Google to censor not just content inside China, but for all users around the world. First, it wanted to “reduce the resolution of the images of China’s sensitive facilities” in Google Earth. Second, it was concerned about the ability of users to freely annotate Google Earth imagery, for example using Google Earth Community:
Moreover, Google Earth allows users to post information about specific locations, –––– –––– continued, which means information about important Chinese agencies and sensitive installations is effectively being published on the Internet.
To Google’s credit, there is no evidence that it subsequently caved in to these demands, and there have been no reports of Chinese territory losing imagery resolution or annotations in Google Earth. Even more surprising, to this day Google Earth is accessible inside China without needing recourse to a VPN.
However, the ultimate price Google paid is no longer being able to operate as a search engine player on the mainland; and this was always the fear — that once Google had sufficient resources invested in China, the Chinese government might hold these investments hostage when wanting specific concessions from Google. Several of the other cables released today specify precisely what kind of pressure Google weathered from the Chinese government and its proxies in business, media and even from among hackers.
Why did China think the US government might be able to influence Google? China’s argument:
While Google is a private company it operates in the United States “political and legal environment.”
In China, all major companies align themselves with the Communist Party when matters perceived to be of national interest are at stake. (Read The Party for some stunning insights into how Chinese corporations and the government are intertwined. I highly recommend the book.) The US embassy official points out that in the US, this is not how it works: Google is a private company, he argues; i.e., it can’t be compelled to do things by the government that it is not legally required to do.
Ironically, within two months that statement would be false. In January 2007, after pressure from the US and UK military, the most up-to-date Digital Globe imagery from Iraq was removed from Google Earth (and subsequently from the DigitalGlobe dataset), because of reports that insurgents were buying CDs of Google Earth imagery in the markets of Basra, so as to better target their RPGs inside UK bases. It was a clear case of Google aligning with the perceived interests of the allied forces in Iraq, rather than being a neutral documentarian. (Since 2007, there have been no new imagery updates for Iraq and Afghanistan in Google Earth — possibly because DigitalGlobe and other suppliers no longer offer it.)
Even if you think that in this case censorship was justified, there is no denying that it weakened the plausibility of the US government’s response to China. Of course the US can compel Google, a company that is part of the “US political and legal environment,” to censor if perceived US national interests are at stake. Perceived Chinese national interests just don’t make the cut, sorry. It is no wonder then that China soon tried to engage in its own acts of compulsion — which ended up making Google’s life in China so difficult it decided to quit the search business there.
2. The Chinese representative mentions that China is not the only country wanting its sensitive locations censored, but is unwilling to name other countries:
He offered that China had been in discussions with other countries with similar concerns about Google Earth. However, –––– –––– refused to provide the names of the other countries, noting he was unable to share the information due to prior agreements with those countries.
We can make some educated guesses, though: China was not the first country to complain about Google Earth. In March 2006, India had already made a push at the UN for new treaty law restricting the publication of satellite imagery, though without gaining traction. In late 2005 Thai generals, the Russian military and South Korea’s Ministry of Defense had all reacted with alarm to seeing their bases on Google Earth. Of these countries, India would prove the most resilient to Google’s argument that the imagery was already available to all comers via Digital Globe and other providers, so that censoring Google Earth would serve no purpose.
If I had to bet, then, I’d guess that China and India engaged in bilateral discussions during 2006 on ways to contain Google Earth.
Below is the cable in its entirety, for reference: