Google last night made the dramatic threat to shut down its business in China after discovering that hackers had been trying to spy on human-rights campaigners using its email system.
The internet giant said it was one of more than 20 companies that were subject to a sustained cyber attack in December, as hackers sought details on the activities of Chinese dissidents and US and European campaigners who advocate for human rights in the country.
Although the company refused to identify the Communist regime as the likely perpetrators of the cyber attack, it immediately retaliated by saying it would no longer censor search results on its website, as it controversially promised to do when it set up Google.cn four years ago.
The decision to stop filtering search results sets up an immediate showdown with the authorities.
"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 in the US, said in a post on the company's blog. "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."
Google was accused of breaching its corporate motto – "do no evil" – by agreeing to censor search results in return for a licence to operate in China. It argued that the benefits of giving Chinese users access to information outweighed the censorship.
The company said last night that last month's cyber attack was first thought to be one of the kind typically faced from hackers in search of intellectual property. However, further investigation revealed a political motive and internal investigators discovered that at least 20 other large companies, from the internet, finance, technology, media and chemical sectors, had been similarly targeted. Google said it was notifying those companies, and the US government.
"We have taken the unusual step of sharing information about these attacks with a broad audience," Mr Drummond said, "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."Reuse content