Google Threatens to Shut Down Business in China After Cyberattack

By Matthew Harwood

Google yesterday announced that it would no longer censor its search engine results in China after the company discovered it was the target of sophisticated cyberattacks emanating from the country. 

"[O]ver 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," wrote David Drummond, senior vice president of corporate development and chief legal officer, in a statement posted on The Official Google Blog. "We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down, and potentially our offices in China."

The company noticed the attacks in mid-December and traced them back to China. The subsequent investigation into the security breach, according to Drummond, discovered three things: Google's intellectual property was stolen, the cyberattacks targeted at least 20 other large tech firms, and that the real motivation behind the attack was to break into the GMail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.

These efforts to gain access to the e-mail accounts of Chinese human rights activists, however, are believed to be unsuccessful.  But other malicious attacks outside of Google's control were successful. The company discovered that U.S.-, Europe-, and China-based GMail accounts of human rights activists had been accessed by third parties, probably through phishing scams or malware placed on their computers.

"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.

As The New York Times reports, Google had originally taken a drubbing from critics for operating a censored version of their search engine that restricted free speech, a move that seems to contradict the company's motto: "Don't be evil." When Chinese Web surfers search for terms like "the Dalai Lama" or "“Tiananmen Square massacre,” according to the Times, the search results come up blank.

In reaction to the company's decision, Danny O'Brien, international outreach coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), commended Google, writing, "Our hope is that other tech companies will follow Google's lead. Too many of them have been willing to comply with Chinese demands that they check their values at the border." The EFF is a civil liberties organization dedicated to digital freedom.

The prospect that the Chinese government will allow Google's search engine to operate within its borders uncensored seems highly unlikely.

“The idea that Google would be allowed to run an uncensored search engine would be inconsistent with everything the Chinese government has done and every single statement it has made over the past year” Rebecca MacKinnon, an expert on new media in China, told the Christian Science Monitor.“The Internet in China is a police state just like China is a police state,” she adds.

If Google does shut down its Chinese operation, reports Dow Jones Newswires, the main beneficiary will be Baidu Inc.—a Chinese company that operates the most popular search engine in the country and has very close relations with the Chinese government. Google says withdrawing from the Chinese market will not harm its revenue stream, but most reports indicate it will deprive itself of a large market as the Chinese economy continues to grow.

Photo by vtdainfo/Flickr


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