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Google to stop censoring articles in China
Internet giant's decision comes amid a clampdown on the internet in China over the last year
Google, the world's leading search engine, has thrown down the gauntlet to China by announcing it is no longer willing to censor search results on its Chinese website.
In an unexpected announcement, the technology company said the decision followed a cyber attack which it believes was an attempt to gather information on Chinese human rights activists.
It also comes amid a clampdown on the internet in China over the last year, which has seen the blocking of numerous sites and social networking services hosted overseas, including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
Google acknowledged that the decision "may well mean" the closure of Google.cn, and potentially the company's offices in China. That is clearly an understatement, given that it had to agree to censor sensitive material – such as details of human rights groups and references to the protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 – before the launch of Google.cn.
News of Google's decision broke in the early morning in China and, by last night, there had been no response from the government. No one at the ministry of industry and information technology answered the phone.
In a post on the official Google blog, the company outlined a December attack which it believes affected at least 20 other firms: "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.
"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."
The firm said that in the middle of last month it detected "a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure", originating from China, which has resulted in the theft of its intellectual property. But it added: "What at first appeared to be solely a security incident – albeit a significant one – was something quite different. We have evidence to suggest that a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists."
It said that it believed the attack did not achieve its objective, as although two Gmail accounts were accessed, only account data and subject lines – rather than the content of emails – were obtained.
It found that at least 20 other large companies had been similarly targeted. It said: "These accounts have not been accessed through any security breach at Google, but most likely via phishing scams or malware placed on the users' computers."
The company added that it was sharing the information not just because of the security and human rights implications "but also because this information goes to the heart of a much bigger global debate about freedom of speech".
It acknowledged the decision will "have potentially far-reaching consequences", stressing: "We want to make clear that this move was driven by our executives in the US, without the knowledge or involvement of our employees in China."
The message, headlined "A New Approach to China" and signed by David Drummond, a Google senior vice president and chief legal officer, adds that the firm launched Google.cn in January 2006 in the belief that the benefits of increased access to information for people in China "outweighed our discomfort in agreeing to censor some results".
At the time, the firm said it would monitor conditions in China and would reconsider its approach if necessary.
Google has around a third of the search engine market in China, which is dominated by the Chinese giant Baidu, although some experts thought it had been making progress in the world's largest internet population.
Its decision to launch the censored google.cn service was highly controversial at the time. It was attacked by campaigners and accused of "sickening collaboration" in a congressional hearing.
Google co-founder Sergey Brin said at the time: "We felt that perhaps we could compromise our principles but provide ultimately more information for the Chinese and be a more effective service and perhaps make more of a difference."