Froma Harrop | Google’s Heroism (Sort of), Self-Interest and Parasitism

So Google wants to play human-rights superhero. Five years ago, it compromised its standing as the global avatar of cyber-freedom by blocking certain searches on its Chinese website at the behest of the government in Beijing. Now it’s threatening to leave China after discovering a massive campaign to hack the Gmail accounts of dissidents there. If it follows through, Google would be abandoning a potential $1 billion annual market for search engines.

But let’s put Google’s move in a proper — that is to say, cynical — perspective. The attacks on Google involve far more than ideas that Chinese leaders seek to suppress. They go beyond complaints that searching on for stuff about the Dalai Lama or the banned spiritual group Falun Gong produce only propaganda denouncing them.

The issues raised by these cyber-attacks also are about business — Google’s business.

In hacking the Gmail accounts, the Chinese apparently uncovered Google’s “core source code.” That would enable them to “get all kinds of interesting data,” James Mulvenon, an Internet security expert, told The Wall Street Journal. Some of it could be used to find security flaws in Google’s systems.

These codes are proprietary information. They belong only to Google, the company says with justification.

But where are Google’s sensitivities to intellectual property rights in its refusal to stop lifting material from news organizations and slapping it on Google News, beside its ads?

Sure, Google includes links to the whole article, but not before including “snippets” that will suffice as news for many time-pressed readers. Here’s an example of the words that Google News recently ripped from The Associated Press: “President Barack Obama on Wednesday promised an all-out rescue and humanitarian effort to help the people of Haiti overcome a ‘cruel and incomprehensible’ tragedy, the ruinous earthquake that ravaged the …” Note that the AP, not Google, had paid someone in Haiti to write it.

Google says that those few lines involve “fair use” of the copyrighted material. Its critics, most famously media mogul Rupert Murdoch, call that activity “stealing content.” Murdoch has another choice word for Google: “parasite.” He threatened to remove all News Corp. content — which includes Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, New York Post and The Times of London — from Google’s search engines. That probably won’t happen because the media outlets rely on the Internet hits that Google searches generate, but Murdoch’s point was made.

News executives everywhere must have emitted an insincere boo-hoo on reading in Google’s official China complaint that “we detected a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google.”

With that off our chests, let’s give credit to Google for this: Its standing up to Chinese authorities could do much good for the cause of political freedom in China. Most Western companies have regarded that country as an economic supertanker whose leaders they dare not challenge.

As the head of Warner Music Asia said last spring, after China banned certain of its downloads, “When you’re in the music business in China, you know you have to follow the regulations.”

Google’s very public attack on China’s leadership will no doubt enrage the gray men sitting at the lead banquet table. And it’s time that someone did.

For that, Google deserves bravery points.

Of course, Google is also serving itself. Its row with China has dragged Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to its defense.

Some observers predict that Google and China will go behind closed doors and work out a deal that protects Google’s interests while continuing China’s suppression of dissident voices. Google’s “don’t be evil” motto does not preclude being a weasel.

Copyright 2010 The Providence Journal Co.

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