Google to end China censorship after e-mail breach (Update)

E-mail leak has Google threatening to leave China (AP)
In this April 27, 2007 file photo, people walk in front of the Google offices in Beijing, China. Google Inc. on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2010 said it might end its operations in China after it discovered that the e-mail accounts of human rights activists had been breached. (AP Photo/Elizabeth Dalziel, File)

(AP) -- Google Inc. will stop censoring its search results in China and may pull out of the country completely after discovering that computer hackers had tricked human-rights activists into exposing their e-mail accounts to outsiders.

The change of heart announced Tuesday heralds a major shift for the Internet's search leader, which has repeatedly said it will obey Chinese laws requiring some politically and socially sensitive issues to be blocked from search results available in other countries. The acquiescence had outraged free-speech advocates and even some shareholders, who argued Google's cooperation with China violated the company's "don't be evil" motto.

The criticism had started to sway Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who openly expressed his misgivings about the company's presence in China.

But the tipping point didn't come until Google recently uncovered hacking attacks launched from within China. The apparent goals: breaking into the computers of at least 20 major U.S. companies and gathering personal information about dozens of human rights activists trying to shine a light on China's alleged abuses.

Google spokesman Matt Furman declined to say whether the company suspects the Chinese government may have had a hand in the attacks.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the Google allegations "raise very serious concerns and questions" and the U.S. is seeking an explanation from the Chinese government.

Google officials also plan to talk to the Chinese government to determine if there is a way the company can still provide unfiltered search results in the country. If an agreement can't be worked out, Google is prepared to leave China four years after creating a search engine bearing China's Web suffix, ".cn" to put itself in a better position to profit from the world's most populous country.

"The decision to review our business operations in China has been incredibly hard, and we know that it will have potentially far-reaching consequences," David Drummond, Google's top lawyer, wrote in a Tuesday blog posting.

A spokesman for the Chinese consulate in San Francisco had no immediate comment.

Abandoning China wouldn't put a big dent in Google's earnings, although it could crimp the company's growth as the country's Internet usage continues to rise. China's Internet audience already has soared from 10 million to nearly 340 million in the past decade.

Google, based in Mountain View, said its Chinese operations account for an "immaterial" amount of its roughly $22 billion in annual revenue. J.P. Morgan analyst Imran Khan had been expecting Google's China revenue to total about $600 million this year.

Although Google's search engine is the most popular worldwide, it's a distant second in China, where the homegrown processes more than 60 percent of all requests.

Free-speech and human rights groups are hoping Google's about-face will spur more companies to take a similar stand.

"Google has taken a bold and difficult step for Internet freedom in support of fundamental human rights," said Leslie Harris, president of the Center for Democracy & Technology, a civil-liberties group in Washington. "No company should be forced to operate under government threat to its core values or to the rights and safety of its users."

It's "an incredibly significant move," said Danny O'Brien, international outreach coordinator at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet rights group in San Francisco. "This changes the game because the question won't be 'How can we work in China?' but 'How can we create services that Chinese people can use, from outside of China?'"

Many Web sites based outside China, including Google's YouTube video site, are regularly blocked by the country's government.

Google's new stance on China was triggered by what it described as a sophisticated computer attack orchestrated from within the country. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., praised Google for disclosing chicanery that "raises serious national security concerns."

Without providing details, Google said it and at least 20 other major companies from the Internet, financial services, technology, media and chemical industries were targeted. The heist lifted some of Google's intellectual property but didn't get any information about the users of its services, the company said. Google has passed along what it knows so far to U.S. authorities and other affected companies.

It does not appear that any U.S. government agencies or Web sites were affected by the attack, according to two U.S. administration officials. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the issue.

The assault on Google appeared primarily aimed at breaking into the company's e-mail service, "Gmail," in an attempt to pry into the accounts of human right activists protesting the Chinese government's policies.

Only two e-mail accounts were infiltrated in these attacks, Google said, and the intruders were only able to see subject lines and the dates that the individual accounts were created. None of the content written within the body of the e-mails leaked out, Google said.

As part of its investigation into that incident, Google stumbled onto another scam that was more successful. Google said dozens of activists fighting the Chinese government's policies fell prey to ruses commonly known as "phishing" or malware. The victims live in the United States, Europe and China, Google said.

Phishing involves malicious e-mails urging the recipients to open an attachment or visit a link that they're conned into believing comes from a friend or legitimate company. Clicking on a phishing link of installs malware - malicious software - on to computers.

Once it's installed on a computer, malware can be used as a surveillance tool that can obtain passwords and unlock e-mail accounts.

Google's unfettered search results won't necessarily ensure more information will be made available to the average person in China because the government could still use its own filtering tools, said Clothilde Le Coz, Washington director for Reporters Without Borders, a media watchdog group.

"The Chinese government is one of the most efficient in terms of censoring the Web," she said. The blocking technology has proven so effective that it's become known as the "Great Firewall of China."

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User comments

Jan 12, 2010
Good call by Google. And I think they can afford the loss of revenue. It's nice to hear that not all companies are only looking at the bottom line.

Jan 12, 2010
What has been not noticed is that this isnt the first time such a concenrated attack has been linked to china. i remember reading a story a few days ago about cybersitter being hacked from china. they stole code from thier web monitoring proram that later ended up in thier great firewall
On a side note does that spammer really think people will buy stuff from that site?

Jan 13, 2010
I think Yahoo already revealed info on chinese bloggers twice (the first of which caused quite a row), but Google is taking a really proactive stand now. Human right activists really deserve some protection.

Jan 13, 2010
It is good to see Google taking a high profile and costly stand against inhumane practices, but if they are made to pull out of China what are the consequences? Forgetting the potential shares fall due to the loss of perceived potential of China, but in the communication interface Google is providing even with their hands tied. Google provides hope and courage, for both sides of the Great Firewall. Although the board may feel frustrated by the agreed controls of the government, they are learning much that can be shared with others - and China is learning how to deal with foreign large corporations inside their country.

Pulling out can not be as beneficial to Google, China or the rest of us as Google staying and fighting the good, if slow, fight.

Jan 13, 2010
It would be nice if the update were specifically noted in the article. Now I have to read it twice.

RayCherry, I have to disagree with you. Many companies are fighting the slow fight. Some of them should just outright quit to let Chinese government officials know its serious.

Jan 13, 2010
I think I'll buy some Goggle stock, only when it completes the withdrawal.

I've found it quite funny that just 20 years ago China was a country that was considered n enemy of the USA. With no USA government announcements China became a partner (who cares that commies are are Red Devils trying to kill Capitalists) of the USA and businesses. Incredible! The country did a flip-flop and nobody blinked. Maybe now, we are blinking with one eye (no, not a Palin wink) and peeking at profit loss with the other? In any case, we need the jobs in the USA, we do NOT NEED China.

Jan 13, 2010
While other companies have played that 'slow' game, too one has to note that by abusing Google's databases people have been imprisoned (possibly tortured/killed). This is not so for what other companies do in China. So I think this is a bit of on a different order than some manufacturer of auto-parts outsourcing to China and accepting some snooping by the government as part of the bargain.

Jan 13, 2010
20 years ago was before the Internet Bob, or at least before it grew global and helped to bring down the Berlin Wall, put the Cold War on the back burner and permitted millions of American entrepreneurs to but products direct from China. So many products that the country now owes China a huge trade deficit, and in exchange the Chinese have been accepting American stocks and shares, and thus the two countries have not 'flip flopped' but economically 'merged' via a symbiotic trading relationship that has brought the Communists and the Libertarians closer together.

Politics and Human Rights is going to follow suit. It is no good the occidental west waving their human rights flags while occupying two foreign countries and looking for excuses to take over more. It is equally not right that the Chinese government turns a blind eye to well organised criminal activities when the information is obviously used to enforce their domestic regime, (leading to more reported inhumane punishment).

Jan 13, 2010
Thomas, Russia eventually lost the 'slow fight' and the horrible threat of a WW3 lifted from the hearts and minds of a generation born under that very threat, even though they were not directly involved in the fight.

Europe waited for twenty years for the dreaded four minute warning, (less for many), while the Americans shook their spears another four minutes away.

It took a lot of talk between business men and education staff to spread the word on both sides that the people did not actually want a war, and that it was the politic regimes' fanaticism that promoted the entire idea. We were lucky to escape that eventuality, through people respecting the value of sharing knowledge, resources and trade ... even though Russia suffered a great deal to change.

Yes, I do know that they did not have ICBMs in the end, and that they ran out of money to keep up with the American technology and arms.

Jan 13, 2010
Now, however, the silent middleman has arisen the true victor of the Cold War. Having sold goods to both sides, and kept a low profile while tough Russians and 'heroic?' Americans hurled abuse, lies and threats at each other.

Never to be underestimated, the Chinese have turned economic freedom of the west to their very great advantage, selling goods that they could produce much more competitively than any of their client's countries simply because they had held their country away from (or behind, if you prefer) the occidental freedoms and standards of living.

Now, however, the Internet once again is providing the bridge between east and west, but this time the Chinese have learnt from the Russians and they want to control as much as possible the 'osmosis' as their own people start to learn more about the lives of people outside their frontiers.

It is irresponsible to over react during this process. Patience and incremental pressure will create holes in The Great Firewall of China.

Jan 13, 2010
Through those holes the truth will pass to both sides. China is a tough place to succeed in, yet many are doing well establishing international businesses that rival anything that an American syndicate could dream of, and they manage to do most of it 'under the radar' by passing themselves off as small family businesses. Throughout the world now there are as many Chinese mini-markets as there are McDonald's, and their restaurant business is as well organised and WallMart in terms of distribution networks - not just food stuffs, but the furnishings.

All of these Chinese ex-patriots pass the message back home about life among the 'crazy westerners', and these messages encourage more Chinese to 'dream the Chinese dream' that has become little different from 'the American dream'. The difference is the political regimes and their fears, and how those fears are transmitted to their respective peoples.

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