Google to stop censoring in China, may pull out

Following attacks on Gmail accounts of human rights activists, Google says it will no longer censor search results in China and might shut down Google.cn.

Tom Krazit Former Staff writer, CNET News
Tom Krazit writes about the ever-expanding world of Google, as the most prominent company on the Internet defends its search juggernaut while expanding into nearly anything it thinks possible. He has previously written about Apple, the traditional PC industry, and chip companies. E-mail Tom.
Tom Krazit
4 min read

Google no longer intends to censor search results in China, and if the Chinese government balks, it may take its servers and go home.

The stunning change in Google's policy toward doing business in China--which was always a complicated dance--came after Google discovered that it and other businesses were the victims of "a highly sophisticated and targeted attack" aimed at gathering information about human rights activists. It is not clear whether the Chinese government was behind the attacks, which Google said in a blog post were also directed against other U.S. companies.

Adobe Systems later confirmed its involvement in the attacks with a statement:

Adobe became aware on January 2, 2010, of a computer security incident involving a sophisticated, coordinated attack against corporate network systems managed by Adobe and other companies. We are currently in contact with other companies and are investigating the incident. At this time, we have no evidence to indicate that any sensitive information--including customer, financial, employee or any other sensitive data--has been compromised.

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Google released a lengthy blog post Tuesday afternoon authored by David Drummond, senior vice president of corporate development and chief legal officer, discussing the decision to review its policy toward China:

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. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn and potentially our offices in China.

The accusation of Internet malfeasance targeting U.S. companies drew attention from the highest levels in Washington, D.C., and prompted a statement Tuesday from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. "We have been briefed by Google on these allegations, which raise very serious concerns and questions. We look to the Chinese government for an explanation. The ability to operate with confidence in cyberspace is critical in a modern society and economy," Clinton's brief statement said. "We will have further comment on this matter as the facts become clear."

Google entered China in 2006 with the launch of Google.cn. It knew at the time that it would be forced to censor search results in accordance with the policies of the Chinese government. But it figured that it could live up to its famous "don't be evil" pledge without passing up the business opportunity in the fast-growing Chinese market by simply notifying Web searchers that their results had been censored due to local laws.

However, in practice, there has been a tricky balance between Google's desire to spread information around the world and the Chinese government's desire to limit the amount of information available on sensitive topics, such as the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. The Chinese government is believed to issue very vague guidelines as to what type of content is permitted and what is prohibited. The end result is that many Internet companies in China censor far more than the government might actually deem offensive.

"We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn and potentially our offices in China."
--David Drummond, Google chief legal officer

Google did not say which human rights activists were targeted by the attack, nor would it comment on whether it believed the Chinese government was behind the attacks. The attackers were unable to obtain the contents of Gmail messages written by two human rights activists in China, but they were able to access account information and the subject lines of an unspecified number of e-mails.

In addition, Google said it determined that someone was able to gain access to the accounts of several Gmail users who were human rights activists, which the company said was due to phishing schemes rather than a security breach at Google.

An industry source familiar with Google's investigation described the incidents over the past several months as "the straw that broke the camel's back," as far as Google's presence in China is concerned. Google is expected to meet with Chinese government officials over the next several weeks to discuss whether it will be permitted to offer an uncensored Chinese search engine.

A cash machine in other parts of the world, Google has struggled to replicate that success in China. The Baidu search engine is as dominant in China as Google is in the rest of the world, and Google trails it in China by a significant margin. According to ComScore, Baidu led the Chinese search market, with 63 percent of searches, in September 2009.

Kai-Fu Lee, the subject of a fierce courtroom battle between Microsoft and Google over his acceptance of a job running Google's China operations, left the company last year to start his own business.

Representatives of Microsoft and Yahoo did not immediately respond to inquiries as to whether their policies regarding search in China would change as the result of Google's decision, though a Microsoft representative said the company had "no indication that any of our mail properties has been compromised." A U.S. representative for Baidu also did not return a call seeking comment on Google's intention to offer an uncensored search engine in China.

This post was updated at 4 p.m. PST Tuesday with additional information and again at 3:47 a.m. PST Wednesday with the statement by Secretary of State Clinton.