It is, literally, an old story. In the legend of the boy and the snake, a venomous snake asks a boy for help, and promises not to bite him. When the snake bites the boy despite his help, and the boy asks why, the snake says, “because I am a snake.”

The boy in the story learns an important lesson: despite the snake’s promises, in the end the snake behaves as his nature dictates.

Google has recently learned the same lesson.  Before 2005, Google’s Chinese presence was limited to a Google search page in Chinese, But this site (which still exists) was frequently blocked, or returned incomplete results, for users in China; apparently the result of the so-called “Great Firewall,” known officially as the “Golden Shield Project”: the technological and human processes that the Chinese government uses to control users’ access to Internet content from outside the country.

As Elliot Schrage, Google’s vice president for global communications and public affairs, told a Congressional committee in February 2006,

Our search results were being filtered; our service was being crippled; our users were flocking to local Chinese alternatives; and, ultimately, Chinese Internet users had less access to information than they would have had.

There are ways around the Chinese government’s Internet restrictions, and the restrictions themselves are often faulty.  But the vast majority of Internet users in China can only access material cleared by the government filters.

The problems that Chinese users had using Google led the company seek permission from the Chinese government’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (Chinese-language site) to create a more direct Chinese portal,

As a condition of setting up the site, Goggle agreed to abide by the Chinese government’s content restrictions on sensitive topics such as pornography, Tibet and political dissent.  As Schrage explained in his Congressional testimony,

The requirements of doing business in China include self-censorship – something that runs counter to Google’s most basic values and commitments as a company. Despite that, we made a decision to launch a new product for China – – that respects the content restrictions imposed by Chinese laws and regulations. … [O]ur decision was based on a judgment that will make a meaningful – though imperfect – contribution to the overall expansion of access to information in China.

Schrange also explained that the approach that Google was taking in providing its services in China balanced the censorship requirements of Chinese law with the information and privacy interests of Chinese users of Google’s services.  Thus Google discloses to Chinese users when search results have been removed; pledged to “not maintain on Chinese soil any services, like email, that involve personal or confidential data;” and promised that its unfiltered Chinese-language service,, would remain available.

The reason for the second pledge — that Gmail, Blogger, and other services in which users store personal or confidential data online would not be hosted on servers physically located in China — was to prevent this data from being subject to Chinese laws.  As explained by Schrange:

We will not store data somewhere unless we are confident that we can meet our expectations for the privacy and security of users’ sensitive information. As a practical matter, meeting this user interest means that we have no plans to host Gmail, Blogger, and a range of other such services in China.

In making this pledge, Google sought to make such information beyond the reach of Chinese authorities by not having it physically located in the country.  In March 2006, Google extended this to records of searches by Chinese users.

But, like the boy in the fable who disregarded the fact that the inherent nature of snakes is to bite, the company forgot that the nature of the Chinese government is to control access to information, and to monitor the activities of individuals and companies of interest.

Google got a taste of this in June 2009, when the Chinese government apparently blocked access to (including and Gmail, claiming that the sites provided access to pornography.

Then, on Jan. 12, 2010, Google announced that it had discovered sophisticated cyberattacks, originating in China, that targeted the corporate systems of Google and at least 20 other companies in the Internet, finance, technology, media and chemical industries; and the Gmail accounts of two Chinese human rights activists.  Google also discovered that the Gmail accounts of other activists on human rights in China, including activists both inside and outside of China, had been accessed by unauthorized users.

In other words, the snake had bitten. China, which has so far managed to promote economic freedom while stifling political freedom, including freedom of speech, was not constrained by political borders in accessing private and confidential information via the Internet.  The Chinese government, true to its nature, worked to further its own interests, without regard for outsiders’ conceptions of privacy and freedom.

In light of the attacks, Google concluded that it would no longer filter search results, and that this may mean that it may have to abandon the Chinese portal.

These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered–combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web–have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down, and potentially our offices in China.

In the days following its announcement, Google said that it was negotiating with the Chinese government on the issue . And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Jan. 21 that the U.S. government will play a role, noting Google’s dispute with China and saying that “countries that restrict free access to information or violate the basic rights of internet users risk walling themselves off from the progress of the next century. Now, the United States and China have different views on this issue, and we intend to address those differences candidly and consistently in the context of our positive, cooperative, and comprehensive relationship.”

But in these negotiations, Google must not forget the nature of the entity that it is dealing with. Despite hopes that the 2008 Summer Olympics would lead to more openness, the Chinese government continued its censorship policies both during and after the games (although it did temporarily loosen access for foreign visitors).

In fact, as the negotiations with Google over its threatened withdrawal were ongoing, the Chinese government ordered mobile phone companies in the country to suspend text messaging services of users who send messages with “illegal or unhealthy content.”

Hopefully, Google has realized that by agreeing to the restrictions on as a condition for going into China, it showed the Chinese government that the company was willing to compromise its professed support for freedom of expression and against censorship. Giving in to government censorship, even just a little bit, will only lead to more.

And hopefully Google has realized the inherent nature of the Chinese government when it comes to censorship.  In the end, it is its nature to take a big bite.

by Eric Robinson, a guest blogger