Tensions between Google and China complicate U.S. diplomacy

By Ellen Nakashima and Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 15, 2010

Google's threat to pull out of China after revelations by the search-engine giant that hackers in China stole valuable corporate secrets from its computer systems comes as the United States is making a concerted push for closer ties with the Asian giant.

A pullout could complicate a delicate diplomatic dance: The Obama administration would like China to make progress on human rights but also needs it to help press Iran and North Korea on nuclear issues and to restructure its economy so its people buy more and export less.

Still, some analysts said, Google's bombshell announcement Tuesday -- which included the news that it would stop filtering Internet searches on its site in China -- could also give the administration an opening to raise sensitive issues, such as human rights and cyber-espionage, without seeming like the aggressor. The broad, sophisticated nature of the attack on Google and at least 33 other firms, including Juniper Networks, Adobe, Yahoo, Symantec, Dow and Northrop Grumman, may move the issue of cyberattacks up on the diplomatic agenda, experts said.

On Thursday, the tech firm McAfee announced that it had isolated the malicious software used to target Google and other companies, exploiting an unknown vulnerability in Microsoft Internet Explorer that allowed the attackers to secretly commandeer the victims' systems.

"The current bumper crop of malware is very sophisticated, highly targeted and designed to infect, conceal access, siphon data or, even worse, modify data without detection," McAfee analyst George Kurtz wrote in a blog post about the attacks. Those programs, he wrote, were "primarily seen by governments, and the mere mention of them strikes fear in any cyberwarrior."

The United States has until now addressed cyberattacks "separately from diplomatic relations" with China and other countries, "but increasingly, this is more and more difficult to do," said Susan Shirk, a China expert at the University of California at San Diego. "So it's definitely complicating foreign policy relations in that sense."

Rob Knake, a cybersecurity expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, said that a "reluctance" to raise the issue of Internet censorship with China "is no longer a tenable position."

But Alec Ross, senior adviser for innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, told reporters that the administration has "frequently made clear to the Chinese our views on the importance of unrestricted Internet use, as well as cybersecurity." He added, "We look to the Chinese for an explanation."

On Thursday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Jiang Yu said that Chinese law "proscribes any form of hacking activity" and that "China's Internet is open and the Chinese government encourages development of the Internet." But in a statement posted on the Web site of the State Council Information Office, cabinet spokesman Wang Chen said the government should continue its policy of keeping certain types of information off the Web in China.

"Maintaining the safe operation of the Internet and the secure flow of information is a fundamental requirement for guaranteeing state security and people's fundamental interests, promoting economic development and cultural prosperity and maintaining a harmonious and stable society," Wang said.

David Gross, a former ambassador and U.S. coordinator for international communications and information policy at the State Department, said U.S. officials have been raising the issue of Google's ability to operate without censorship since the company made the decision to set up Google.cn in 2005, but always during private meetings with their Chinese counterparts.

Still, Gross said, he does not think the pullout threat will catapult this issue or human rights to the top of the U.S. agenda with China: "My experience is that's not what drives those intergovernmental discussions."

China has been tightening control over the media and increasing pressure on dissidents. Google's decision to stop censoring Internet search results, which the White House on Thursday said it supported, could undermine that effort, analysts said.

Google did not coordinate its decision with the administration, nor did the administration advise it beforehand, officials said.

A few hours before the company posted its announcement on its Web site, a Google official called a handful of administration officials to alert them.

They were surprised, officials said, but not displeased.

Staff writer Steven Mufson in Beijing and staff writer Cecilia Kang and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.

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