Google has vowed to defy Chinese Internet censors and risk banishment from the lucrative market in outrage at "highly sophisticated" cyberattacks aimed at Chinese human rights activists.
China-based cyber spies struck the Internet giant and at least 20 other unidentified firms in an apparent bid to hack into the email accounts of activists around the world, Google said Tuesday.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on Beijing to explain the cyberattacks.
"We look to the Chinese government for an explanation," the chief US diplomat said in a released statement.
"The ability to operate with confidence in cyberspace is critical in a modern society and economy."
The online espionage has Google reconsidering its business operations in China and it said it will no longer filter Internet search engine results in that country.
"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," Google chief legal officer David Drummond said in a blog post.
"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," he said.
Drummond said Google realizes that defying Chinese government demands regarding filtering Internet search engine results may mean having to shut down its operations in China.
Human rights activists hailed Google, voicing hope it would lead Western companies to reconsider their compromises in doing business in China.
"Through international pressure, finally a big business in the West has come to realize its own conscience," prominent Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng, who spent 18 years in prison before entering exile in the United States, told AFP.
T. Kumar, the Washington-based advocacy director of Amnesty International, urged other Internet companies to follow Google's lead.
"We're glad that at last international Internet companies are waking up to the reality that they cannot go along with oppressive nations like China," Kumar said.
Google said it detected in mid-December "a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google."
The company said it was notifying at least 20 other large companies of similar attacks including finance, Internet, media, technology, and chemical firms.
"We have no indication that any of our mail properties have been compromised," Microsoft told AFP, declining to comment further.
Yahoo! backed Google's decision.
"We condemn any attempts to infiltrate company networks to obtain user information," Yahoo! said in response to an AFP inquiry.
"We stand aligned with Google that these kinds of attacks are deeply disturbing and strongly believe that the violation of user privacy is something that we as Internet pioneers must all oppose."
Google said its investigation revealed that accounts of China human rights activists who use Gmail in Europe, China or the United States have been "routinely accessed" using malware sneaked onto their computers.
Google believes the attack was mostly blocked and that only minor information was stolen from two accounts.
"The decision to review our business operations in China has been incredibly hard, and we know that it will have potentially far-reaching consequences," said Drummond, adding that the heart of the matter is freedom of speech on the global Internet.
Google was careful to stress that the decision was made by the California company's executives in the United States and not by workers within easy reach of authorities in China.
"Google was in a no-win situation," Silicon Valley analyst Rob Enderle told AFP. "The choices they've got are all bad, but this one allows them to claim the high ground at home by standing up to evil China."
Internet firms interested in access to China's booming market have been pressured to acquiesce to "onerous" government rules regarding online censorship, according to the analyst.
"China is a hard market to walk away from," Enderle said. "It took a lot of guts. Capitulating wasn't working, so taking a harder stance might work better."
Google's unofficial motto "Don't Be Evil" became a topic of derision after the company in 2006 began censoring search results in China to appease officials there.
"When Google first launched a filtered search engine in China, EFF was one of the first to criticize it," Danny O'Brien of the Electronic Freedom Foundation said in a blog post.
"We'd now like to be one of the first to commend Google for its brave and forthright declaration to restore an uncensored Chinese language version of its search engine."Reuse content