Google has decided to stop censoring its results in China and could end up closing its operations and shutting down its search engine there, the company said Tuesday.
The decision follows an attack on Google’s servers in December that targeted the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists, Google said in a blog post.
“These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered—combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the Web—have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China,” David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer, wrote in the post.
In mid-December the company detected a “highly sophisticated and targeted attack” coming from China on its infrastructure that resulted in some of its intellectual property being stolen, Drummond wrote. He didn’t disclose exactly what had been stolen.
Google later discovered it was not the only company targeted. “As part of our investigation we have discovered that at least 20 other large companies from a wide range of businesses—including the Internet, finance, technology, media and chemical sectors—have been similarly targeted,” Drummond said.
Google said it is in the process of notifying those companies and also working with U.S. authorities.
In addition, it found that the primary goal of the attacker seemed to be accessing Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. Drummond said only two Gmail accounts were accessed, and that only account information and not the content of e-mails was accessed.
But separately, Google found that Gmail accounts of “dozens” of human rights advocates in the U.S., China and Europe have been “routinely accessed by third parties,” Drummond wrote. Those break-ins most likely happened as a result of phishing scams or malware and not through a security breach, he said.
“We have taken the unusual step of sharing information about these attacks with a broad audience not just because of the security and human rights implications of what we have unearthed, but also because this information goes to the heart of a much bigger global debate about freedom of speech,” Drummond wrote.
Google, like many other technology companies, has come under fire for bowing to censorship requirements imposed by the Chinese government. Google has argued in the past that it is better for China if Google operates any service there that increases access to information, even a censored one.
But Drummond said Google has always pledged to monitor conditions in the country and reconsider its approach if necessary. The company has now decided to review the feasibility of its operations in China.
“We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China,” he wrote.
It would be a remarkable and unexpected turnaround for Google, which has invested heavily in China to tap into its fast-growing Internet population, which already outnumbers that of the U.S. and is growing fast.
It has, however, been a difficult road for Google, which has struggled to win significant market share against Baidu.com. The Chinese search leader accounted for nearly 70 percent of online searches in China late last year, compared to about 20 percent for Google, according to China IntelliConsulting.
Simultaneous with the disclosure of the hacking incident, Google’s Enterprise division president sought to reassure corporate customers the data they have stored in Google’s servers is likely safe.
“We believe Google Apps and related customer data were not affected by this incident,” Google Enterprise President Dave Girouard wrote in an official blog.
“This attack may understandably raise some questions, so we wanted to take this opportunity to share some additional information and assure you that Google is introducing additional security measures to help ensure the safety of your data,” Girouard wrote, without being specific about what Google will do differently.
The Center for Democracy and Technology praised Google’s decision to reconsider its position in China.
“Google has taken a bold and difficult step for Internet freedom in support of fundamental human rights. No company should be forced to operate under government threat to its core values or to the rights and safety of its users,” Leslie Harris, the CDT’s president, said in a statement.
IDG News Service’s Juan Carlos Perez in Miami and James Niccolai in San Francisco contributed to this report.