Analysis:U.S.-China split on Internet future despite Google deal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Google Inc’s deal with Beijing to end a censorship dispute removes one irritant in U.S.-China relations, but the two countries still face deep divisions over the Internet’s future.

Google said on Friday that China had renewed its license to operate a local website after the search engine giant agreed to stop automatically redirecting users of its China search site,, to its uncensored Hong Kong site.

“Both sides gave up something, and in that sense it was a very elegant diplomatic compromise,” said Sheldon Himelfarb, a technology expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

“But there is a sideshow going on that we need to keep looking at, and that is the disconcerting pattern of abuse of Internet ethics by the Chinese.”

The Google deal defused a spat between Washington and Beijing that blew up in January after Google said it might be forced to abandon the Chinese market because of hacking attacks and censorship concerns.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton led U.S. officials in backing Google and demanding China explain the alleged hacking incidents, adding tension to relations beset by China’s currency practices, arms sales to Taiwan and other issues.

They were met by denunciations from Beijing, which rejected the accusations and marshaled Chinese state media to accuse Google of promoting a political agenda.

But with Sino-U.S. relations already under strain and Google’s future in the world’s biggest Internet market suddenly open to question, all sides opted to back off a bit in hopes a solution could be found.

The end result was Friday’s deal, which saw Google hold on to its Chinese Internet license and Chinese website while still enabling users -- albeit with one more click -- to access unfiltered search engine results through its Hong Kong site.

“It is a classic Chinese solution,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, a China expert at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton.

“Substantively they’ve changed nothing, but technically they have come into compliance with Chinese law.”


The deal has obvious benefits for Google, which hopes to use the site to get into businesses such as music search and text translation, while its Android operating system for mobile phones is already hugely popular in China.

Analysts said Beijing also benefited, sending a reassuring signal to foreign businesses that it will play by its own rules while keeping an innovative global company such as Google firmly in its domestic market -- where Chinese companies can both compete with and learn from it.

“The Chinese government clearly sees Internet and mobile innovation as a major driver of its global economic competitiveness going forward. They want Google there,” MacKinnon said.

For the United States, taking the spotlight off Google reinforces other positive developments, including steps by both sides to resolve the dispute over China’s valuation of its currency as well as its lukewarm but steady support for international pressure on Iran over its nuclear program.

But analysts said the core Internet disagreement between Washington and Beijing over freedom of information and freedom of expression remained, as did mounting U.S. concerns over Chinese cyberattacks and hacking incidents.

“China is a major factor driving the domestic debate about cybersecurity .... what the threats are, and how we are protected and who the possible attackers are. China is never far removed from that discussion,” said Adam Segal, a cybersecurity expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“It seems with the Google deal that all of the larger issues about censorship and hacking have been pushed to the side.”

But there may be signs of progress -- albeit slow and uncertain.

Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, along with two other U.S. senators, wrote in an opinion piece in the San Francisco Chronicle on Friday that they returned from a recent trip to China reassured that at least some senior Chinese leaders were ready to engage on cybersecurity.

“To be sure, the United States and China have sharply divergent views on Internet freedom. But we must not let these differences stand in the way of serious talks,” the senators said, urging U.S. officials to incorporate the issue into the broader diplomatic dialogue between the two countries.

Drew Thompson, director of China Studies at the Nixon Center in Washington, said that might be difficult given the highly opaque nature of both cyberspycraft and hacker culture on both sides.

With the U.S.-China relationship both broader and under more pressure than ever before, he said it was important to seek common ground -- and that resolving temporary upsets like the Google case could help.

“I’m not sure it’s a happy ending but everybody is happy it is ending,” he said.

Editing by Patricia Wilson and Peter Cooney