Even Critics in Congress Support Google’s China Policy Shift

As Google navigates issues such as online data privacy, antitrust, and net neutrality in Washington, D.C., the firm’s announcement that it may leave the China market is already scoring points — even among its critics. Data privacy advocates are praising Google, as are U.S. legislators who have shown particular interest in Google in relation to privacy and antitrust issues.

“Google’s announcement that it may abandon the China market is appropriate, if belated, and news that it will no longer censor searches on Google.cn marks a great leap forward for freedom,” said Congressman Joe Barton, ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and co-chairman of the House Privacy Caucus in a statement posted to the House Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans Web site yesterday.

Barton continued, “I hope to work with Google and the other companies to protect the private data of the human rights activists and anybody else who might attract invasive attention because their beliefs diverge from communism.”

Barton expressed competition and consumer privacy concerns about a proposed Google/Yahoo search ad deal at the time it was proposed in 2008.

Yesterday, Google announced it will review its business operations in China after it uncovered what it called a “highly sophisticated and targeted attack” resulting in theft of intellectual property including information from Gmail accounts of human rights activists.

“I commend Google for coming forward with information about this attack and for cooperating with law enforcement officials to investigate the origin and nature [of] it,” said U.S. Congresswoman Anna Eshoo in a statement Tuesday. She represents California’s 14th congressional district, which includes Google’s hometown of Mountain View and Yahoo’s Sunnyvale HQ.

Eshoo, typically a supporter of Google, is a member of the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet, which has been especially concerned with online privacy related issues. In 2008, Eshoo, along with other House Democrats came out in support of Google’s proposed search ad deal with Yahoo. The deal was squashed by the U.S. Department of Justice. Eshoo also has implied concern about the use of behavioral targeting methods by AT&T and employment of its customers’ data to enable such targeting. AT&T is a Google rival in the net neutrality debate. Google also offers behavioral ad targeting.

San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a group that joined privacy advocates and lobbying groups last year in support of Congress passing clear consumer privacy legislation — which could have a major impact on Google’s online ad business and data usage — also praised Google. “When Google first launched a filtered search engine in China, EFF was one of the first to criticize it; we’d now like to be one of the first to commend Google for its brave and forthright declaration to provide only an uncensored Chinese language version of its search engine,” stated the organization Tuesday on its Web site in a post titled, “Bravo Google.”

EFF added, “Our hope is that other tech companies will follow Google’s lead. Too many of them have been willing to comply with Chinese demands that they check their values at the border.” The organization was part of a coalition of groups that held a briefing in Capitol Hill in November to educate congressional staffers about how personal data is collected online, days before a joint House subcommittee hearing on offline and online consumer data collection.

Human Rights Watch also called Google’s announcement “an important step to protect human rights online,” adding in a statement that, “Google’s decision spotlights the importance of freedom of expression and privacy online and illustrates the persistent risk to human rights posed by governments who see the free flow of information as a threat.”

Although groups like EFF and Human Rights Watch took a positive stance towards Google’s China announcement, some privacy advocates may view the company’s move as hypocritical. In an official statement, Google said it made its announcement about the China data breach “because of the security and human rights implications.” Yet, the company has been a regular target of privacy advocates who believe the company has access to and control over too much user data.

A frequent critic of Google and its growing control over online user data, Center for Digital Democracy Executive Director Jeff Chester suggested that Google’s China announcement “places Google under a more favorable light, [including] with policymakers.”

However, he continued, “I await to see whether the company actually closes its doors there, including related businesses involving digital marketing.”

Though it stated it will shut down its China search site if the country’s government continues to require its censorship, Google has yet to decide whether or not to cease operations in China. “We’d like to continue to operate in China…That would be our preferred outcome,” said Google Chief Legal Officer David Drummond in a CNBC interview Tuesday. Even if the firm decides to shutter its China site, it may decide to maintain some operations in the country, such as research and development, Drummond said.

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