Here’s a question from the “things may not always be what they seem” file. Is Google’s rushed and premature rollout of its latest product, Buzz, related to its ongoing cyber tussle with China? With the world’s two most popular social networking products, Facebook and Twitter, blocked in the People’s Republic (PRC), and Google believed to be still in negotiations with Chinese officials concerning GOOG’s threat to stop filtering search results on their Chinese search engine (google.cn), did Google cast Buzz into the social networking mix as part of a bigger plan to put more heat on China?
In a bilingual discussion (h/t @stinson) on Buzz hosted by wierdchina one of the sentiments expressed was that it is not a question of if but when China will block Gmail, since it is now integrated with Buzz. Although there is a gmail.cn in China, it is not a Google product, so all gmail.com accounts in China are also Buzz-ed, just as they are throughout the world. What does this mean for both Google and China? Well, it means that Gmail acount holders in the PRC now have a social networking component that they can use with their Gmail accounts without, at this point, using a VPN to vault the Great Firewall (GFW), as they must do to use Twitter and Facebook (and Google’s YouTube, for that matter). While there are social networking services within China, they are closely monitored and self-censored by the services when discussions cross the fuzzy line that might bring down the wrath (and stiff fines) of the government. An externally controlled social networking service that is not under the influence of Chinese censors is the reason why the world’s most popular services are banned, and why they will remain banned until something changes – either China changes its restrictive policies and allows open discussions or the services provide versions of their products which are engineered to fit into the proverbial Chinese characteristics box. Google.cn’s search engine is Google with Chinese characteristics, a modifier that Google says they can no longer live with, and which is the ostensible topic of the month-long discussion that continues to this day.
Enter Buzz. In poker playing patois, this is the raise. Can China, as a major player at the big table, afford to toss Gmail out and be seen as even more intolerant than they already are? Could this be the reason why Google rushed this product without any external testing? As Todd Jackson, Buzz’s product manager noted,
“We’ve been testing Buzz internally at Google for a while. Of course, getting feedback from 20,000 Googlers isn’t quite the same as letting Gmail users play with Buzz in the wild.”
It’s an oddly silent and huge-stakes game that Google and China are locked in, and this rush to market with Buzz – forced, myopic and misguided as it has been – might actually be seen in the light of Google’s ongoing struggle with China as a raising of the stakes, and the linking of Buzz with Gmail hardly a coincidence.