Burn the Books: What China’s decision on Google reveals about the PRC

By Carson Thomas Checketts

“When ideas fail, words come in very handy.” – Goethe

Something or someone in the PRC has failed. China’s attempts to attack Google betray a deep discomfort with the PRC’s own decision to ban the worlds leading technology leader from its shores. Perhaps, given Goethe’s insight, it’s fair to say that the PRC’s “ideas” have failed so it is now resorting to all it has left: words. Despite a widely shared international consensus among academics[1] that an industrial revolution remains hollow without a transition to a services and information based economy, China has turned its back on its own modernization. This change has many implications for the world, but perhaps the most significant is that the Google decision shows who really holds the cards in the PRC’s inner circle. It would appear the less educated military may have moved from a position of moderate influence into the inner circle, where their paranoia has apparently convinced China that technology is what ancients called a “Greek gift,” intended to harm rather than enlighten the recipient.

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New Caucus To Probe Strategic Communication, Public Diplomacy

Inside the Pentagon reports on the new caucus on the Hill that shows the level of heightening interest in improving America’s global engagement. In “New Caucus To Probe Strategic Communication, Public Diplomacy”, dated 11 March 2010, reporter Fawzia Sheikh writes:

A new Capitol Hill caucus focused on strategic communication and public diplomacy officially launched last week and plans to study the latest government efforts in these domains during its inaugural meeting later this month, according to a congressional source.

A new Pentagon report on strategic communication, a State Department plan on public diplomacy and a National Security Council framework outlining how agencies will collaborate in these areas will be among the discussion topics, the congressional source said on the condition of anonymity. (See related story.)

Reps. Adam Smith (D-WA) and Mac Thornberry (R-TX) are heading the caucus, which is still being rounded out, the source told Inside the Pentagon. Organizers have collected the names of three other Republicans and three additional Democrats interested in joining, said the source. There has also been “a lot of interest at the staff level,” including the House Foreign Affairs Committee, defense authorizers and “other elements of the congressional staff,” the source said.

“Given the interest in this issue,” added Michael Amato, Smith’s spokesman, “we expect a significant number of members to join the caucus.”

The rest of the article follows.

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Are you monitoring the Now Media environment?

Ah, the days when your public affairs or public relations department could sit back and watch the wire for potentially adverse headlines that you could formulate a response after several meetings over the next day. The world isn’t so simple or, more to the point, so slow.

Simply put, you can’t ignore new media just like you can’t ignore old media as both intermingle in each other’s world amplifying “news” (quotes intentional), creating reach as information shoots around the world through radio (even on the back of motorcycle), television, in print, SMS, let alone Twitter. That same information is persistent, hanging around and available on YouTube and through Google.

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Google and American Foreign Policy

Where does Google fit in the scheme of US foreign policy? It is a US company and yet how much does it need the US Government to expand abroad? Does it have a role in trade negotiations, and should the US Government support its expansion abroad as the government does with oil companies and other industries?

Google can launch a Bengali / Bangla language server with little to no government intervention, either local or at home. Independence from the US Government is more apparent when server resides at the US-based Googleplex (which many of the foreign language/country specific servers do). If we ask “what is Google’s foreign policy and how should we anticipate their actions” we need to ask “who and what is Google?” I suggest Google is unlike anything that has come before (perhaps excepting Yahoo!). But the penetration and scale of Google, shown by “verbification” and ubiquity of Google, far exceeds Yahoo!’s reach.

Google isn’t 1950’s General Motors (“what’s good for GM is good for America”). Nor is it 1990’s Boeing who desperately wanted to sell to the Chinese and pressured State / White House to do it (without success). This is not marketplace eBay with a foundation in exchange of tangible goods. For Google, the buyer and seller relationship exist but without a physical transfer. Google is like American credit reporting agencies, accept, as a colleague pointed out in a conversation over this, reporting agencies are very close, one step away, from your money. Google is not nearly that close to your pocketbook or is at best indirectly as it serves as a matchmaker connecting the user with an advertiser.

Google is not like Microsoft, with desktop and server operating systems and software suites. Microsoft is concerned about reverse engineering and intellectual property rights (IPR). It isn’t like CISCO providing boxes and knowledge that can be copied or reverse engineered and likewise concerned about IPR.

How about TiVO? Users can exercise a Lockean choice to time-shift, but it is solidly based on a hardware device and a revenue model based largely on end-user subscription. TiVO would make a logical contribution to the Google information base.

Wal-Mart? Wal-Mart is well known for having a tremendously interconnected knowledge system to precisely understand and react to customer buying habits to maximize (milk) every penny spent in their store. However, Wal-Mart still has mortar, trucks, inventory, and plenty of disgruntled employees and unhappy displaced former store owners.

Google is different. Google is an information broker. Consider Google’s corporate social responsibility. Does one even consider CSR when speaking of Google like you do with Wal-Mart, Ford, HP, or even RAND? What is the Google footprint in the world of political, social, and economic ecologies?

Google is a young company with its stock trading at $358 as of this writing (look up the price on Yahoo!). They use virtual teams of developers residing in multiple countries, but their product does not require tariff negotiations, safety tests, or other legal conformity. Google’s products don’t even need to be finished products when delivered, staying in beta for inordinate lengths of time.

Google is a world wide brand that, because of its localizing (or glocalizing), is less attached to the US as an “industrial age” firm with tangible products that interfere with local manufactures or growers or crowd the streets or pound the ear drums. There will not be any French farmers torching Google.fr or crowds protesting NATO or the ICC in front of Google srpski (Serbian). The good people of Cymru (Wales) can say ‘bording da’ with their morning tea while searching Google Cymraeg. There’s also the odd Google H4x0r (Hacker)… Uighur, and over 100 languages serving over 110 distinct countries.

The recent controversy about two decisions by Google are interesting in how they differ. The first is Google’s challenge to a US subpoena on their data. The poor people scared away from the search engine (I’m sure it was only a brief and temporary flight) are likely not aware of the amount of information Google collects on them and re-purposes, usually in exchange for a few coins dropped in their pocket. Most people don’t understand or take the time to ponder or learn about Google, Yahoo, MSN Search, or any of these tools. Search engines are seen as black box appliances (in fact, you can purchase their systems for corporate intranets as blackbox with varying degrees of customization).

However, the personalization of Google is apparent w/ their search home and search history. It is also seen in searches themselves (at the top, shaded recommended links) and in AdWords, the customized-by-search precision guided marketing (PGM in kinetic war; PGM in gaining eyeballs). The information collected on “named” individuals (i.e. you) is substantial, but not as substantial as the collection on unnamed individuals (i.e. somebody at an IP address). Remember when ads were going to appear within GoogleMail messages? So, there’s information to be collected and then sold. This collection and selling is a brokerage focused on information, metadata. How they distribute this data is up to them, right? How about image searches for Tiananmen? There might be something political on what the China server and the US (default) server retrieves (or this, China / World). Now, what claim do we have to say the difference is wrong? Is it within Google’s right pursue a policy with states that is required? Being a sort of pay for play, it’s illegal in the US, but where in international law does is it codified? One of the many human rights declarations?

From Street and Aerial Maps to Froogle to Scholar to News to Books to Video and more, Google peddles information. Concerns over terrorist use of what amounts to a cheap, GIS package has focused on GoogleEarth, not TerraServer (with its greater control over image selection and resolution) or other photo sites (threads at DefenseTech on Googling Area 51 were entertaining and so is the flying car contest). And then there are the mash-ups of other data into GoogleMaps, using say, FAA real-time data and conspiracy theories. Is this aggregation the democraticization of intelligence and general information?

Ease of use is of course easy through the main user interface (“I’m Feeling Lucky”) and through toolbars. Interesting side note is the new toolbar available for IE (this version is not yet ready for Firefox) allows new, content specific buttons to be added. Now Google can track your searching of the New York Times, MovieFone, Saskatoon StarPhoenix, AOL News, and even other search engines (among probably at least one hundred buttons). You can even search while offline w/ Google Alert and GoogleAlerts (two distinctly different things).

The second decision was Google’s decision to acquiesce to Chinese requirements in order to get behind the Great Firewall. Was there lobbying by Google on the US? Probably. Which department? Who knows. Does it really matter? Maybe. Lobbying on China? Yes, definitely. Does it matter? Probably less so unless you’re a China specialist. Is this unique in Google’s foreign (which implies a “domestic”) policy? Darn right. Did they sell their soul? Maybe, but it’s not the same soul as we came to know and love in the industrial economy. So what if they did? What is it to us? Unless they are selling US-citizen search data (who cares about non-US citizens, right? do you think there will be an uproar in the US if China demanded Mongolian query data?).

Consider the amount of Google data flowing on the Internet. Verizon “accused Google of freeloading“, claiming backbone and last-mile providers are bearing the cost of Google’s information peddling from “cheap servers”. Will Google go vertical? If they do, they’d be smart to do it enough to simply insulate themselves against these types of threats. Is Verizon trying to switch the fee scheme? What will that mean to iTunes? CNNWatch? Tony Blair (watch the PMQs and then picture W standing in Blair’s shoes)? Is Verizon looking at some sliding scale? Regardless, it would be interesting to analyze and quantify the Google-transacted / sourced traffic on # of transactions and gb’s served. Should Verizon be grateful for Google for putting their users in touch with content and therefore wanting to upgrade to higher speed networks?

On a side note, I was told first hand GTE, old SoCal phone company, was working on a fibre roll out and had already started training their technicians to support it. However, when they realized they were about to sell out to Verizon, all work was stopped. That was six years ago. We are still no better than 3mb service, which we’re supposed to be excited about, meanwhile 45mb service is common in Japan.

Another side consideration on what Google has become. Microsoft was known for pre-pre- (sometimes add another pre-) release product announcement. Early mention of a potential upcoming product to inhibit competition. Google has taken the art of beta to a new level. They’re granted an effective license to provide unfinished software without users complaining. Now, the software works, but they allow themselves the theoritical (and ethical?) excuse on failure: it wasn’t a final product. Who else can get away with this for such a long time? Who cares?

So, if Google can defy or give-in at will, it seems fairly independent, right? It has some ability to establish rules on the Internet, considering its heft, right? What if your site doesn’t match the ‘standard of fair play’? Remember when website loaded their metadata header tags with unrelated tags? Or loaded pages with unrelated words or heavily repeated pertinent and related words. Ok, maybe you don’t or don’t want to admit it. Called webspam, BMW in Germany (BMW.de) apparently did try to mess with Google. They got caught. See the post from Matt Cutts with what the Googlebot saw and what humans saw and read his comments at the bottom (Hat tip to Collective Conversation).

When considering the impact of Google’s ability to retrieve, publicize, and broker both content and usage information, the impact on ICT (information communication technology) is significant. Likewise, when a Bengali server goes online, Google steps closer into obvious ICT4D (ICT for development) ramifications. A paucity of content in non-G8 languages is arguably an invisible ‘firewall’ (the ceiling metaphor doesn’t “hack” it) to cultural and social input. Does this mean UNESCO, with its charge to protect culture, should take an increased interest in Google? Would countries begin to lay claim on their national content in a neutral, or less than neutral, internet similar to copyright issues in the Gutenburg Project?

Google has the right to control the quality of the inputs, but at what
point might Google become a public good? Or too big? Can it become too
big? Might it become a new Common, in the traditional almost quaint
notion? Charles Clover, writing in Internationale Politik, reminded me of Grotius’s Mare Liberum that established the ocean as a common and of John Selden’s refinement, Mare Clausum, establishing sovereignty over sea closest to its territory.

Could remanding into the classification of a Common be in Google’s future? Doubtful, but besides predicting Google’s behavior, what can we do to predict the layout of the uncharted “waters” of cyberspace? What will Google’s foreign policy look like and how much will the United States be involved or even the target of it? Will anywhere be domestic, or foreign, to Google?

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Democratizing of Intelligence

Back when the news of the alleged CIA prisons broke, Wired News asked: Can Satellites ID CIA Prisons?.

Satellite images could help determine if the CIA ran secret prisons in Europe, according to a Swiss lawmaker who is drawing up a report on the issue for the Council of Europe human rights watchdog.

The idea was commercially available satellite imagery, like that from Google Earth and Microsoft Local, could provide detailed analysis on the cheap. The problem with these services is the timeliness of the imagery. GoogleEarth pics are 3 – 5 years out of date. Microsoft Local apparently has the same age, but is taken at a lower altitude and includes various viewing angles.

The democratization of IMGINT is significant and one more brick out of the wall separating state secrets from Citizen X.

DefenseTech has a thread about Google Earth originating from about
when it came out. Pictures of Area 51 drew a lot of attention, as did
some other areas, including the fact Cheney’s residence was obscured
but other prominent locations were not (adding further fuel to the
Legend of Cheney).

From elsewhere…

This is of an AT&T command and control center for east coast military communications, its anyones guess what is going on there now… Rather a quaint little place, with about 180 parking spaces, I wonder if the neighbors know what goes on there.

And this from The Register, a contest to find odd things in geo-pics, such as a flying car captured on Google Earth.

And when DefenseTech.org comes back online, go here for their GoogleEarth commentary (apparently the Area51 pics are now obscured based on a comment I saw somewhere).