Tag Archives: Google

China’s Social Media Propagandists Limber Up For US Elections

WORD ARRIVES FROM our man in Washington about the growing concern there about China’s expanding disinformation campaign targeted at the United States.

Facebook, Twitter and Google’s YouTube have taken down accounts on their social media platforms they say are linked to Chinese state interests and that have been seeking to discredit Hong Kong protestors. Twitter and Google have also said they would no longer sell advertising space to media that are financially and editorially controlled by nation-states. Netizens in China have accused the US social platforms of political censorship.

In Washington, the disinformation campaign over Hong Kong is being perceived as the first significant social media-based disinformation campaign that China has geared toward US audiences. The accounts Twitter disabled are a mix of bot- and human-based ones, with some dating back to 2009, suggesting long-standing preparation. The concern among lawmakers in the United States is that this is a dry run for Beijing’s propagandists for the 2020 US presidential and Congressional elections.

That offers the unpredictable prospect of both China and Russia meddling in a US election, but possibly on different sides, with Moscow supportive of US President Donald Trump and Beijing taking the opposite tack, although Democrats are no longer as dovish on China as they once were.

Both, though, are likely to contribute to the declining US confidence in its democratic institutions, which may be success enough in Moscow and Beijing.

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How Sino-Centric Is The World Wide Web?

As Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, wanders around Shanghai, he will no doubt reflect, and not for the first time, on the fact that China accounts for barely 500,000 of his highly successful social network’s 400-plus million users around the world. He might also like to consider this: by 2016 China will have more internet users, at nearly 800 million, than the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany, India and Japan — combined.

That forecast comes from The Connected World, a Boston Consulting Group report published at the time of the annual Davos shindig in January. If more than a quarter of the 3 billion people in the world the report reckons will be online by 2016 are in China, compared to a tenth in the U.S., should we be thinking of China as being at the center of the Internet and the global digital economy rather than the U.S.?

It may be misguided to think of anything as distributed as the Internet as having a center. Yet sheer weight of population is fast swelling the China node, and challenging the notion that China, by its own volition, can be a web world of its own.

The first e-mail sent from China contained the message, “Across the Great Wall, we can reach every corner of the world” — even if the opposite hasn’t proved particularly to be the case. Yet more and more of that world is increasingly inside the Great Wall. With a population of 1.3 billion and an internet penetration rate of 38.3% at the end of last year, there is plenty of scope for grow the ranks of netizens. In raw number of internet users, China passed the U.S. in 2008, though fewer than one in four Chinese was online then compared to almost three out of four Americans. Between 2007 and 2010 China added more Internet users than exist in the U.S. It now has 513 million netizens. The U.S. has 245 million. If China now had America’s current online penetration level (78.3%), it would already have more than 1 billion internet users.

China, like other emerging economies, is also riding a second underlying trend, a world going digitally mobile. It doesn’t have to put a PC on every desk to get its citizens online, just put a smartphone in their hand. Two-third’s of China’s online population accesses the Internet via mobile phone. This year, for the first time, more smartphones will be bought in China than in any other country. China can leapfrog the desktop just as some emerging economies skipped the landline in telephony.

It can also go straight to the social Web. Tencent’s QQ messaging service is what set the company on the road to becoming China’s largest Internet company by market capitalization. Its Weibo (microblogging) service is easing ahead of rival Sina’s (they have more than 500 million users between them). Its Weixin mobile app took barely 400 days to acquire 100 million users. Social networking is a substitute for having no siblings to talk to at home, we are told. Well perhaps. More likely, weak IP protection and weak competition from TV has driven heavy use of the Internet in China for entertainment, particularly online music and videos, and the conversations that follow that. Tencent has adeptly cashed in on that with online games and entertainment. Consumers expect to pay for mobile phone services. They have grown used to them being free on a PC, to the detriment of any business in a country that was an early adopter of desktop computing.

China has also walled off its domestic market to censor and protect domestic industries. There are only two major economies where Facebook isn’t the leader in social networking and Google in search. One is Russia. The other is China, where Renren leads in social, and Baidu in search. Google’s problems in China are too well documented to need rehearsing here, but it is worth noting that Zuckerberg’s 500,000 Facebook users in China constitute a 0.0004% local market share. It has 50% in the U.S.

China’s Internet companies have been in the happy position of being fast followers of the leading global companies, able to learn from them without facing undue competition from them and all the while riding a fast growing economy playing catch-up in Internet use. It seems inevitable that there will be foreign pressure to open up China’s Internet market, just as there has been to open up other sectors of the economy. Domestic Internet companies are starting to position themselves for that eventuality. The recently announced proposed merger of the online video sites Youku and Tudou is sector consolidation to that end.

% of online population whose first language is English or ChineseEach country will fashion the Internet in its own image to a certain extent. Whether the Internet more globally is Anglo- or Sino-centric is determined not only by users but also by usage and content. More than half the content on the Internet is still in English. That is despite the fact that the share of all Internet users who count English as their first language is shrinking (the blue line in the chart to the left). In 2000, it was almost two in five. As of March last year, the latest available figures, it is, at 27%, barely one in four. Over the same period the share of native Chinese speakers (the green line in the chart) has risen to 24%, or almost one in four, from 9% or one in eleven. Native Chinese language speakers are the second largest group online after English speakers. (Japanese, Spanish and German round out the top five languages online, accounting for a dominating 68%).

Where Chinese’s sway falters is that English is the dominant second language and language of business. Even if the official push to promote China’s culture increases the volume of Chinese language cultural and entertainment material online, the international audience for it will be relatively limited. A tonal language like Chinese is ill-suited to the battering it gets when spoken by non-native speakers. English has proved far more robust. It has even spawned a variant, Globish, for just that purpose.

A shift in geographic center towards the emerging economies is not the only change shaping the Internet. Bits and bytes now follow the Brics, as trade once followed the flag, perhaps. Reflecting the shift from nation states to a global economy bestrode by mulitnationals, it is also forming around digital ecosystems that have companies at their center, such as Google, Facebook and Apple in the U.S., Tencent and Baidu in China and Yandex in Russia. They are shaping an Internet economy that cuts across old national boundaries. BCG forecasts the Internet economy will be worth $4.2 trillion in the 20 richest nations by 2016. By that time, IBM has forecast, 1 trillion devices, from phones to fridges and control systems will be connected to it. BCG says the Internet economy will account for 8% of G-20 nations’ GDP, up from 4.1% in 2010. That would be like adding another Italy or Brazil to the G-20 (we are a sucker for such analogies; and, yes, we know GDP figures are probably not adept at capturing Internet economic activity).

Yet China’s Internet giants have a long way to become the corporate hubs of global digital ecosystems. The commercial growth to come domestically may act as a deterrent to them becoming so. In 2010, the search engine market was worth $1.75 billion and is forecast to reach $14.5 billion by 2015. But over the same period, e-commerce is forecast to expand from $75 billion to $315 billion, at which point it would pass the value of e-commerce in the U.S., estimated to grow from $180 billon to $304 billion in 2010-2015.

China’s sheer size makes national bricks and mortar retailing difficult. E-commerce is further boosted by cheap shipping and high rates of urban broadband penetration, already on a par with America’s at 68%. However, as BCG says, broadband infrastructure alone isn’t enough to push a country to the forefront of the Internet economy. Also needed are “a favorable regulatory environment, strong payment systems, consumer protection for e-commerce transactions, and a willingness on the part of governments, business and consumers to go online”.

Forecasts about the Internet in China should always carry a large caveat not only about the commercial environment, but also about the political uncertainties surrounding them. China censors its social networks internally and the wider web externally with its Golden Shield, more familiarly known as Great Firewall. Leaders brought up in the era of state-run broadcasters and newspapers have very different hopes, fears and aspirations for the Internet than the generation that is growing up with it. China’s digital natives have just as much scope to use it to change society and commerce as their equivalents elsewhere. The question is the degree to which they will be constrained from doing so. What is certain is that the rising tides of the global web, like those of the global economy, are shifting in their direction.

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No Google Plotting In China

The World Bank is excited about a partnership with Google to empower what Caroline Anstey, one of the Bank’s managing directors, calls ‘citizen cartographers‘. People on the ground in some 150 countries will be able to use the technology, called Map Maker, to plot, well, just about any social infrastructure. The idea is that this collective effort it will help the bank, and other development agencies, spot gaps, improve delivery of services, fight corruption and track resources. And we commend it. China, however, is not one of the 150 or so countries signed up for the project. So no unauthorized plotting there.

Footnote: The World Bank has used the technology for pinpointing its projects in China (and elsewhere). China’s portfolio is one of the largest in the Bank. That can be seen on its Mapping For Results page.

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Battling The Google Hegemony

Google as a modern-day British East India Company, exercising imperial hegemony in the American interest, is the theme of an editorial by Zheng Yan, published by the People’s Daily at the end of last week and widely reposted on local websites such as QQ since (English translation via China Media Project). The author, identified near anonymously as “a web user”, touches on a well-scratched nerve of national shame, but the piece is worth a read as it more than just another knock at the American search and media company. It represents yet more string to the nationalist bow, a perspective of social media held in Party circles not as a liberating force but as a tool of national interest, and another Orwellian reason that freedom lovers should stand in the way of Google’s world domination. In its corner, China stands ready to fight the good fight.

 

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Cablegate: Details Of The Google Hack Published

The allegation that a Politburo member irked by finding critical comments after googling his name was behind the hacking of the U.S. search media company Google late last year was trailed when the publication of the U.S. State Department cables by WikiLeaks first started. Now the cables in question have been made public (via Guardian).

The source of the accusation is a “well placed contact” of an officer at the U.S. embassy in Beijing. The operation against Google was reported to have been coordinated out of the State Council Information Office without having “been discussed more widely in the Party”. It started with orders to the three big state-owned telecoms companies to stop doing business with Google. When this failed to get Google to remove the link on its (censored) Chinese site to (uncensored) google.com, the pressure was escalated into the December 2009 cyberattack. Google went public about the hacking, which was when, the cable suggests, the broad party leadership became aware of events.

The campaign, according to this contact was “100% political”. However, other contacts of the embassy claimed that a top leader was working with Google’s domestic rival Baidu against the American company and that there was a perception, promoted by the government, than the U.S. government and Google were working together to undermine Chinese government controls on the Internet and thus exerting “cultural hegemony” and interfering in the country’s internal affairs. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech last January on internet freedom in which she came down in support of Google, without giving any indication that her officials suspected a top-level Chinese leader as being behind the attacks on it, may, perversely have reinforced that view. Given the concerns in Beijing about about the high-resolution satellite imagery on Google’s mapping software, Google Earth, that would not have taken much doing.

The cable also reported that contacts in the technology industry had told embassy officials that that Chinese interference in the operations of foreign businesses is widespread and often underreported to U.S. parent companies.

[Name redacted] noted the pronounced disconnect between views of U.S. parent companies and local subsidiaries. PRC-based company officials often downplayed the extent of PRC government interference in their operations for fear of consequences for their local markets. Our contact emphasized that Google and other U.S. companies in China were struggling with the stated Chinese goal of technology transfer for the purpose of excluding foreign competition. This consultant noted the Chinese were exploiting the global economic downturn to enact increasingly draconian product certification and government procurement regulations to force foreign-invested enterprises (FIEs) to transfer intellectual property and to carve away the market share of foreign companies.

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Leaked Cables Show U.S. Frustration At China’s Role In North Korea-Iran Trade

The leaks of U.S. State Dept. cables by the online whistleblower WikiLeaks as far as we can tell so far don’t reveal any great new secrets about Sino-American relations. We’ve turned up only a few China-related cables in the batches published by some newspapers, which are not the full set shown to them, so it is thin pickings at this point, though there will be thousands more to come. (WikiLeaks’ leaked cables from the U.S. Beijing embassy here.) Yet one of the few that has been made public initially underlines the depth of frustration felt in Washington about its inability to stop China playing the middleman in North Korea’s weapons trade with Iran.

A 2007 document signed by then U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (via Guardian) mentions “about 10” occasions between December 2006 and August 2007 on which the Americans said North Korean shipments of jet vanes for ballistic missiles passed through Beijing. The vanes were trans-shipped to commercial passenger flights out of Beijing Airport, with the Chinese authorities ignoring American requests to intervene to stop them, despite the Bush administration raising the issue several times at the highest levels.

The leaked cable also says Iran was trying to buy tungsten-copper alloy plates from Dalian Sunny Industries to make the vanes itself should its North Korean supply dry up. Separate cables also have the Americans accusing Chinese firms last year of supplying Iran with materials and assistance for making chemical weapons and saying that Iran was trying to buy gyroscopes and carbon fiber for its ballistic missiles from Chinese companies.

If the jet vanes were missile related, as the U.S. claims, their trans-shipment would have been in contravention of a U.N. Security Council resolution preventing their international trade and China has publicly said that it won’t help any country develop ballistic missiles that can be used to deliver nuclear weapons. But there is plenty of wiggle room within those constraints for anyone who didn’t want to look too closely.

At the same time, a cable from the U.S. embassy in Beijing dated March 2009 says that senior Foreign Ministry officials were telling the Americans that China’s good political and economic relations with Iran weren’t unconditional, that China didn’t want a nuclear-armed Iran (and was not 100% certain Iran was developing nuclear weapons, as opposed to “nuclear capability”, which would give it some regional clout). The officials also said China was supporting international talks on the issue but that the U.S. should take the lead with direct negotiations. They also said that they had told the Iranians “not to take China’s economic interests in Iran for granted” and that progress on the nuclear issue would “create a foundation” for further Chinese investment in the energy sector.

Improved ties with Saudi Arabia makes Beijing less reliant on Iran for oil and gas. Another cable, on the occasion of Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi’s visit to Saudi Arabia in January this year, notes some prodding from the kingdom for China to get in line with international efforts to limit Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and non-specific promises that Saudi Arabia would assure what is now the largest customer for its oil of adequate supplies should its purchases from Iran be interrupted.

Without providing the supporting cable in its database of the leaks , The Guardian also reports that

the hacker attacks which forced Google to quit China in January were orchestrated by a senior member of the Politburo who typed his own name into the global version of the search engine and found articles criticising him personally.

The New York Times, another recipient of the leaked cables, adds that

The Google hacking was part of a coordinated campaign of computer sabotage carried out by government operatives, private security experts and Internet outlaws recruited by the Chinese government. They have broken into American government computers and those of Western allies, the Dalai Lama and American businesses since 2002, cables said.

The New York Times also reports that “American and South Korean officials have discussed the prospects for a unified Korea, should the North’s economic troubles and political transition lead the state to implode. The South Koreans even considered commercial inducements to China, according to the American ambassador to Seoul. She told Washington in February that South Korean officials believe that the right business deals would ‘help salve’ China’s ‘concerns about living with a reunified Korea’ that is in a ‘benign alliance’ with the United States.”

A cable from May 2009 also reveals that China felt that the “lever of economic development” had not been used effectively on North Korea in the six-party talks, and that the further sanctions being pushed by the West wouldn’t work. As with Iran, Chinese officials have been telling the Americans that they need to take the lead through a bilateral dialogue with Pyongyang to get the international talks going again. A cable from December 2009, summarizing China’s advice to the U.S. on what reassurances it should give North Korea about its intentions, gives a good sense of why Kim Jong Il’s regime feels its back is against the wall.

It also contains the best piece of diplomatic understatement in all the leaked cables we’ve seen. Wang Jiarui, who heads the Party’s department dealing with other Communist Parties, told the Americans that “it was impossible to predict North Korean behavior through ‘normal’ means of reading public indicators”.

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China Renews Google’s License

Google has got its license to operate in China renewed. Xinhua quotes an unnamed official at the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology as saying that China had approved renewing the operating license of Beijing Guxiang Information Technology Co. Ltd., operator of Google’s China website. The Xinhua report makes a point of Google’s pledge in its renewal application to ‘abide by Chinese law’ and to ensure that it will provide ‘no law-breaking content as stipulated in the 57th statement in China’s regulations concerning telecommunications’. That is the bit that prohibits organizations and individuals from using the Internet to spread content that attempts to subvert state power, undermine national security, infringe on national reputation and interests, or that incites ethnic hatred and secession, transmits pornography or violence. So plenty of scope there for the running battle between Google and China to run and run.

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Shelf Space

Google’s search engine. James Cameron’s Avatar. Both much the same in China; cleared out to make room for local product.

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Google, Hacked, Takes A Rare Public Stand

Google, market cap $143 billion, vs China, nominal GDP of $4.6 trillion (2008) at current exchange rates. Not exactly an even match up. Yet David is taking on Goliath, not that Google is used to playing the David role.

The American search media company says it might pull out of China after it discovered that in December the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists had been breached, albeit at a low level. In a blog post, Google’s top lawyer, David Drummond said that “we have discovered that at least 20 other large companies from a wide range of businesses–including the Internet, finance, technology, media and chemical sectors–have been similarly targeted.”  In a separate post Google, which runs a distant second in the 7 billion yuan ($1 billion) China search market to Baidu’s 60%, added that it was “no longer willing to continue censoring our results” on its Chinese search engine, as the government requires, a practice it had engaged in since 2006 to obtain its Chinese license despite its “Do No Evil” self-image.

Google is not alone among foreign companies in bowing to Beijing’s wishes over matters the government considers sensitive (although it has stopped short of directly accusing the government of being behind the Gmail attack). And it will likely meet with government officials in the near future to discuss whether it will be allowed to offer an uncensored Chinese search engine. It is also embroiled in a copyright dispute over including Chinese authors in its Google Books project. But it may be better positioned than most to take a high-profile stand that will benefit it more in the places where it makes its money, and it may also be gambling on Beijing not wanting to be seen to be drumming one of the world’s best-known multinationals out of the country.

Update: a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said Wednesday that “China welcomes international Internet companies to conduct business within the country according to law” and that the “government administers the Internet according to law and we have explicit stipulations over what content can be spread on the Internet”.

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Court Tells Mian And Google To Sort Out Copyright Suit

Mian Mian’s suit against Google is an awkwardness for the authorities, the sort of awkwardness they just hope would go away. In October, the 39-year old author filed a copyright infringement suit against the U.S. search and advertising company for scanning one of her books into its online library as part of its Google Books project. She is seeking damages of 61,000 yuan ($9,000) and a public apology (Google has already taken down the work in question, Acid Lovers). The awkwardness for the authorities lies in the fact that many of Mian’s works are banned as they deal with a taboo underworld of sex and drugs.  So they are trying to make it disappear. A Beijing judge has told the two parties to hold settlement talks, though there is apparently no deadline for a resolution.

Meanwhile, talks are continuing between Google and the China Written Works Copyright Society which is seeking compensation for tens of thousands of other books by Chinese authors whose works have been included in the Google Books project. Last year, Google agreed to pay $125 million to resolve a similar copyright infringement suit filed in 2005 on behalf American authors and to provide revenue from sales and advertising to authors and publishers who agree to digitize their books, though even in the U.S. the legal battles are continuing.

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