Google and the ethics of the cloud

The New Republic has published my comment on Google’s about-face on China. I reprint it here:

Google is being widely hailed for its announcement yesterday that it will stop censoring its search results in China, even if it means having to abandon that vast market. After years of compromising its own ideals on the free flow of information, the company is at last, it seems, putting its principles ahead of its business interests.

But Google’s motivations are not as pure as they may appear. While there’s almost certainly an ethical component to the company’s decision – Google and its founders have agonized in a very public way over their complicity in Chinese censorship – yesterday’s decision seems to have been spurred more by hard business calculations than soft moral ones. If Google had not, as it revealed in its announcement, “detected a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China,” there’s no reason to believe it would have altered its policy of censoring search results to fit the wishes of the Chinese authorities. It was the attack, not a sudden burst of righteousness, that spurred Google’s action.

Google’s overriding business goal is to encourage us to devote more of our time and entrust more of our personal information to the Internet, particularly to the online computing cloud that is displacing the PC hard drive as the center of personal computing. The more that we use the Net, the more Google learns about us, the more frequently it shows us its ads, and the more money it makes. In order to continue to expand the time people spend online, Google and other Internet companies have to make the Net feel like a safe, well-protected space. If our trust in the Web is undermined in any way, we’ll retreat from the network and seek out different ways to communicate, compute, and otherwise store and process data. The consequences for Google’s business would be devastating.

Just as the early operators of passenger trains and airlines had, above all else, to convince the public that their services were safe, so Google has to convince the public that the Net is safe. Over the last few years, the company has assumed the role of the Web’s policeman. It encourages people to install anti-virus software on their PCs and take other measures to protect themselves from online crime. It identifies and isolates sites that spread malware. It plays a lead role in coordinating government and industry efforts to enhance network security and monitor and fight cyber attacks.

In this context, the “highly sophisticated” assault that Google says originated from China—it stopped short of blaming the Chinese government, though it said that the effort appeared to be aimed at discovering information about dissidents—threatens the very heart of the company’s business. Google admitted that certain of its customers’ Gmail accounts were compromised, a breach that, if expanded or repeated, would very quickly make all of us think twice before sharing personal information over the Web.

However important the Chinese market may be to Google, in either the short or the long term, it is less important than maintaining the integrity of the Net as a popular medium for information exchange. Like many other Western companies, Google has shown that it is willing to compromise its ideals in order to reach Chinese consumers. What it’s not willing to compromise is the security of the cloud, on which its entire business rests.

9 thoughts on “Google and the ethics of the cloud

  1. Niraj

    Great insight.

    This lets me think. Should and will the Cloud Computing industry be regulated. In light of people like Paul Volcker talking about treating Financial Services as Utilities and hence regulated, should’nt Google and such other large companies be regulated.

    It is only a matter of time before a 2008 Financial Crisis type storm hits the Cloud Computing World.

  2. Peter B. Reiner

    I think your analysis is correct, but the real question is whether Google would have acted as it did solely as a result of the attempted security breach. It is hard to know, but I think the answer is probably not.

    My impression is that the principals at Google are principled individuals (albeit a bit weird) who found themselves in an awkward spot: they didn’t like supporting censorship in China but could not make the case to their shareholders that exiting China was in the company’s best interests. Once the targeted attack came, Google was able to marshall arguments along the lines of those you have described to make the case for extracting themselves from an uncomfortable situation. Interests aligned results in a positive benefit for all.

  3. Cedarface

    “@Scobleizer Yep, @google stance on China is HUGE. I am proud of Google for standing up for themselves – they should not accept abuse! GO G!” -susanbeebe

    Tweets like this are so heart-warming and I want to believe Google is good and motivated morally despite lost profits. But I suspect it’s just a nice coincidence that the best business decision happens to look righteous. This coincidence seems to have run long and deep through Google’s business.

    Well, anyways, here’s to Google’s profit centers aligning with our collective consumer interests long into the future!


  4. Nick Carr

    It is hard to know, but I think the answer is probably not.

    I would tend to agree, with the caveat that we don’t know exactly the severity of the breach of Google’s (and other companies’) systems.

  5. Smedley

    Google made a business decision — and that is a good thing. Businesses tend to stick with business decisions.

    And Google is a business.

    It is not a religious organization or a charitable organization.

    It is not a movement or a cause.

    It is just a corporation, one with a well-honed image.

  6. Mat

    Yes, the security of the web is very important to Google, and probably was a trigger for doing what they did.

    However, I don’t see how threatening to leave China helps Google in blunting the security risk originating in China. After Google has left, it still is possible for chinese to try to hack in Google’s systems, and if there where reasons for doing so, I don’t see why those reasons would have disappeared after leaving the country.

    So I think it is very difficult to portray Google’s action solely or even mainly as driven by business reasons. Principles have a lot to do with it.

  7. PaulLev

    As I indicated back on my blog, in my response to your comment there, I appreciate what you say, but I care less about the motives of Google’s action regarding the China, and more about the consequences – which, for reasons I detail here – I think are momentous on behalf of freedom of expression.

  8. Neil Taggart

    You may recall that the original reason they went into China was also partially morally justified: better to offer the choice of democratically-inclined tools of information sharing & collaboration, even if censored, than not to.

    Being present in China is not inherently evil – they’re not selling weapons, after all. But when highly organised (read ‘govt-backed’) hackers turn your toys into weapons then it’s time to take the toys away.

    Google servers must get attacked all the time. I suspect what riled them most was the source and intent of the attacks, rather than simply security.

  9. Michael Metz

    What if Google had responded to the Chinese cyber attack with a counter attack? Who would win a cyber war, Google or the Chinese government?

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