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13 January 2010, 14:40

Google considers closing its Chinese operation

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Google Logo Google says it is no longer prepared to bow to Chinese censorship and is even considering a withdrawal from the world's largest and fastest-growing internet market. The vendor says that the U-turn in its policy was triggered by recent massive cyber attacks originating in China, by program information theft and by increasing censorship of freedom of expression in the Chinese market. International civil rights groups welcomed the decision as a courageous step to protect human rights and the freedom of the internet.

Google's Chief Legal Officer, David Drummond, writing in the Official Google Blog says "We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google wants to discuss with the Chinese government whether its local search engine can be operated without censorship. We recognise that this may well mean having to shut down, and potentially our offices in China". The attacks, combined with the surveillance and the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the Chinese networks have reportedly lead to Google reviewing the continued feasibility of its business operations in China.

According to a report by the Wall Street Journal, important source code that potentially gives access to other data and allows attackers to identify security weaknesses was stolen during the Chinese hacking attacks. Google only vaguely spoke of a "theft of intellectual property" and a "highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China". The vendor says it uncovered similar attacks on at least 20 other large companies in the internet, finance, technology, media and chemical sectors. The relevant US authorities have also reportedly become involved.

Google said that the attack targeted the email accounts of Chinese human rights activists. According to the current state of investigations, however, they did not succeed. Apparently the attackers only managed to access two email accounts and were only able to view the account information and subject lines, but not the actual content of the emails themselves. Independently of this attack, the vendor said it discovered that dozens of accounts owned by users who campaign for improving human rights in China were routinely monitored by third parties. According to Google, this is probably achieved via phished passwords or malware installed on users' computers.

The human rights organisation Human Rights Watch welcomed Google's decision to challenge censorship in China as "an important step to protect human rights online". Human Rights Watch says China's government "devotes massive financial and human resources to censor the Internet and to hunt down and punish netizens who hold views which the ruling Chinese Communist Party disagrees with". American civil rights campaigners Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) said: "Google has taken a bold and difficult step for Internet freedom in support of fundamental human rights".

When starting its Chinese search engine operation four years ago, Google – like other internet firms – was severely criticised for agreeing to filter its own search results. Search results relating to politically sensitive topics like the violent suppression of the protests in Tiananmen Square are filtered out. With around 340 million users and a rapidly growing economy, China is considered an important future market for Google's core internet advertising business.

The US government is looking to receive clarification about the hacking attacks launched on Google from China. In a statement by the US State Department today, US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton said Google's allegations "raise very serious concerns and questions". The statement said that US government has been briefed by Google about the incidents. Clinton said "We look to the Chinese government for an explanation". The US Secretary of State emphasised that a reliable and free internet is important for modern society and economy.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing has not responded to a request for comment about the hacking attack allegations or about Google's decision to challenge Chinese censorship regulations.

Google operates the most popular search engine worldwide, but hasn't managed to assert itself against the longer-established Chinese Baidu search engine, who says that its market share increased to 77% in the third quarter of 2009. Last Tuesday Baidu's operation was also compromised by a hacking attack.


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