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

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.

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.

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:

This story "Slaves We Were: How Brin’s Soviet Past Prompted Google’s China Exit" was written by J.J. Goldberg.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.


J.J. Goldberg

J.J. Goldberg

Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).

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