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Will Google's certificate change hurt China's e-economy?

When is a sanction not a sanction? Probably when it has been issued by Google. Last week the ongoing geopolitical deep freeze between the US and China took another turn after the Mountain View giant removed certificate authority (CA) CNNIC from its list of trusted CAs. That move could yet throw a potentially large spanner into China’s internet economy.

What this means going forward is that Chrome will not trust any new websites which sign up to authenticate with the non-profit .cn operator – flashing a warning notice up to users which could deter them from clicking through. Ostensibly Google took this unusual step after CNNIC allowed one of its intermediate authorities to issue fake Google certificates which could have been used in Man in the Middle attacks to spy on internet users.

But judging by CNNIC’s angry response, there could be something more to it than that.

A chequered past 

The CNNIC is actually overseen by controversial government agency the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) – headed up by propaganda supremo Lu Wei. As such they have both been implicated in high-profile Man in the Middle attacks on Chinese users of iCloud, Outlook, Google, Yahoo and others in the past. With more and more of these platforms using HTTPS, MITM is the only way the authorities can monitor or censor users – not wanting to go for the nuclear option of banning the sites outright.

Both bodies were recently called out for “weaponizing” everyday internet users into launching large scale DDoS attacks, first against anti-censorship body Greatfire.org and then its GitHub pages. Rights groups believe we should care about this particular attack because it showed the passive, inbound filter of the Great Firewall turning for the first time into an aggressive, outbound weapon of censorship.

“We now have evidence that points to the Chinese authorities being behind the recent DDoS attacks against our websites and against GitHub. We also had previous evidence pointing to the authorities being involved in the MITM attacks,” Greatfire co-founder Charlie Smith told me by email.

“The Chinese authorities are taking dangerous, aggressive and damaging efforts in an attempt to censor information globally. I'm happy that Google has publicly recognised this.”

But has it? It’s impossible to know whether Google’s actions were influenced by these attacks – certainly it has remained publicly silent on the matter. It is true that the web giant has little to lose from taking a more aggressive stance against Beijing, having had most of its services blocked inside the Great Firewall for some time now. One of the few still active is Chrome, which is the nation’s favourite browser with a share of over 50%. In a nicely ironic twist this could actually give Google a bit of leverage where it counts – economically.

Where it hurts

Beijing pays little heed to criticism of its shadowy activities in cyberspace unless they are accompanied by actions which could hit its bottom line. By making it harder for Chinese online commerce to function, and for netizens to reach the sites they want to reach, Google will at least have grabbed the attention of the government.

In a similar way, president Obama’s recent executive order which could impose US sanctions on those who launch major cyber-attacks on American national security, foreign policy, and economy – will have raised eyebrows in Beijing. Not least, because it raises the prospect of locking out products the US believes may have been made with stolen IP.

Whether any of this will change China’s cyber policy is unclear. US technology firms will certainly be hoping there’s no tit-for-tat backlash against them in the Middle Kingdom. But one thing is true – if you have any chance at all of influencing Chinese policy, it must start and end with economics.

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Phil Muncaster

Phil Muncaster has been writing about technology since joining IT Week as a reporter in 2005. After leaving his post as news editor of online site V3 in 2012, Phil spent over two years covering the Asian tech scene from his base in Hong Kong. Now back in London, he always has one eye on what's happening out East.

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