J.J. Goldberg

Slaves We Were: How Brin’s Soviet Past Prompted Google’s China Exit

By J.J. Goldberg

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No field of Judaic knowledge is more widely scorned than the humble but ever-popular Jewish Geography — otherwise known as “Guess Who’s Jewish?” After all, we’re told by our betters, it doesn’t really make a difference, does it?

Well, no, it doesn’t. Until it does.

Case in point: Google’s recently announced departure from China. The Internet giant discovered in January that its Chinese site was under attack by hackers. On investigation, the hackers were found to be seeking information on human rights activists through their Gmail accounts. Press accounts have variously attributed the subsequent departure decision to the company’s protective stance on its proprietary software or its commitment to the open, free-wheeling culture of the Internet.

The Wall Street Journal added a new twist in a March 12 article showing that the main driving force behind the quit-China decision after the hacking was discovered came from Moscow-born co-founder Sergey Brin, who left Russia with his family when he was 6.

Mr. Brin has long been Google’s moral compass on China-related issues, say people familiar with the matter. He expressed the greatest concern among decision makers, they say, about the compromises Google made when it launched its Chinese-language search engine, Google.cn, in 2006. He is now the guiding force behind Google’s decision to stop filtering search results in China, say people familiar with the decision.

The Journal’s Ben Worthen reports that Brin was leery from the outset about entering China because of its censorship requirements and totalitarian culture. He was talked into it by co-founder Larry Page and CEO Eric Schmidt, who argued that the company could do more for freedom by providing Chinese people with more access to information than they would have without Google.

Mr. Brin was born in Moscow in 1973. He emigrated to the United States with his family in 1979, he has said, in part because of anti-Semitism there before the fall of the Soviet Union. He has said in past interviews that the move and its circumstances had a profound impact on his life.

A fuller account of the Brin family’s encounters with Soviet antisemitism and its impact on Sergey appeared in this Moment magazine article from February 2007 by investigative journalist Mark Malseed. It seems that Brin often speaks in general terms of Soviet totalitarianism, but the piece of it that touched his own life as a child was the antisemitism that his father suffered.

News reports this week indicate that Google’s China problem is spreading. The company is now dealing with hacking in Vietnam that seems to be directed at identifying dissidents.

Here’s how the Journal’s Worthen explains Google’s process of deciding to enter and then leave China:

When Google launched its Chinese site, it agreed to filter out results that the Chinese government found objectionable, including some political speech and pornography.

Mr. Brin wasn’t completely comfortable with that decision and would sometimes say Google should never have agreed to Beijing’s conditions, a person familiar with his thinking said. But his objections were never enough to reverse Google’s policy.

“I actually feel like things really improved” in the first years after Google entered China, Mr. Brin said at a technology conference in February. “We were actually able to censor less and less, and our local competitors there also censored less and less.”

But following the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, he said, “there’s been a lot more blocking going on.”

In December, Google detected cyber attacks that it traced to computers in China. It said some of its intellectual property was stolen, adding that it had evidence that attackers were trying to access the accounts of Chinese human-rights activists on Gmail, Google’s email service.

Mr. Brin personally supervised Google’s subsequent investigation, even moving his office into the building where Google’s security team was operating, said a person familiar with the investigation.

The Wall Street Journal reported in January that in debates over how to respond, Eric Schmidt, Google’s chief executive, argued the company could do more good by keeping its search engine in China. Mr. Brin said Google had already taken that approach, and that it could no longer justify giving in to China’s requirements to censor search results.

A Silicon Valley executive who knows Mr. Brin said his Soviet upbringing made him particularly opposed to state use of technology to spy on citizens. This person suspects that the apparent attempts to spy on Gmail users may have been as important in Google’s reaction as the issue of censorship. “That tripped Sergey,” this person said.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Vietnam hackers, Soviet antisemitism, Sergey Brin, Google, China

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