Google, Facebook, and the China Syndrome

Can Facebook's privacy policies really hurt you? Are things in China as bad as they seem to us? Readers weigh in with some interesting viewpoints.

So far, 2010 has started off with a bang. Google decides to take on Apple in the ultra-smartphone market, while Apple appears on the verge of creating yet another new market for touchscreen tablet PCs. Google says "bite me" to China, after Chinese cyber attackers target it and three dozen other tech firms. Yahoo chimes in with support for Google and gets spanked by its Chinese partner, Alibaba. This story isn't going away any time soon.

Before we get too far into the new decade, though, I'd like to highlight a handful of really great letters from readers regarding two recent posts.

[ Stay up to date on Robert X. Cringely's musings and observations with InfoWorld's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

The first is from reader K. R., who was responding to my story on Facebook's increasingly blithe attitude toward its subscribers' privacy ("Facebook puts your privacy on parade"). He says he recently deleted all of his Facebook updates and closed his account because of changes the network made to its default privacy settings.

As a highly visible gay political activist in the 1990s, KR says he received his share of blowback -- being fired from one job, almost losing another, and harassment by men posing as local police. And as with most Facebook users, his past and current interests were woven into his Facebook profile -- searchable by anyone, including prospective employers:

My direct action days are now largely past, but I did make mention of them periodically on my Facebook page. I posted a pic of myself, for example, wearing just boots, leather shorts, and a harness, from the 1995 Pride parade carrying a sign directed at Fred Phelps reading "He's your God. They're your rules. YOU go to Hell!" ....

While I can control who can view my non-profile pics under the new privacy settings, I can't hide my membership in different groups and pages I'm a fan of. Being in the "No on Prop 8" and "Yes on Ref 71" groups could be a job killer. (It's sad that this is still the case, but it is.) Add in my home town - a small city - and another visit from YAHOOS posing as cops is an unwelcome possibility. That's why I retired my account.

K.R. brings up something I didn't get into in my post: Everyone has some information they want to keep private, but for some people the stakes are much higher. He adds:

If someone WANTS to post a pic of themselves nude, drunk, and with their Social Security Number scrawled across their chest, more power to them. I don't want to have to limit what I share with my close friends and family for fear I'll be asked about it in my next job interview.

Topic No. 2: Google and the China controversy. I heard from several readers about my post on "Google's China problem (and ours)," including one from a Chinese student studying in the United States, T. Z.

In somewhat fractured English, T. Z. points out that while the Western media has largely assumed the Chinese government is behind the attacks, no one has proven anything. He adds an interesting perspective on what people in China are aware of (I've cleaned up some of the grammar and language for readability):

... The majority of citizens in China do not talk about politics too much, especially that kind of the Inglorious history of the party in the last century, and the media do not show people negative news about government and society. That's true in the past years. But things have been changing, a lot.... Lots of the western countries (certainly including the U.S., no offense) are criticizing the human rights situation in my country all the time. I am not so sensitive about the [rhetoric] provided by the US nor China governments. According to what I know, people in China mostly have got equal treatment in various aspects. As for the Dissidents, I remember there was a piece of news that a Dissident was sentenced to jail for several years because of violating laws. Perhaps the leadership should have a reconsideration about the development of the political system, but I don't think it would go the western way finally, though the economics [are] actually growing more far away from the communism. OMG, I used that word...

T. Z. adds that he'll miss Google Docs and Gmail if they go, but most Chinese won't, since they use Baidu, and that the climate of opinion of China "is definitely getting better, just give it more time."

Meanwhile, Cringester C. M. is skeptical that Google will make good on its threats to leave China.

I think that they will have to take a good long hard look. If they want any market share in the future for smart phones then, I think they will still have to play ball. ...I personally think that if Google does leave China it will only shoot itself in the foot and the other companies will rejoice, because that would mean that 20% of the market share is now up for grabs.

And reader C. P. says he wants Google to fight cyber fire with cyber fire:

I like to think that Truth, Justice & the American Way will triumph over evil, but I don't know. ... As for Google. Good for them for saying something, but I think I would rather have seen them engage in some covert Internet warfare. Of course, they couldn't say anything if they did, being covert and all. Maybe they figured the publicity and the international spotlight would be worth more than some secret victories that would just p*** off the Chinese Overlords.

That is a good question. If you worked at Google (or any of the other companies targeted), wouldn't you want to do some reverse mojo to help break through the great firewall?

If you were Google (or Facebook) what would you do? Post your thoughts below or e-mail me:

This story, "Google, Facebook, and the China Syndrome," was originally published at

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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