SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Google Inc. will stop censoring its search results in China and may pull out of the country completely after discovering that computers hackers had tricked human rights activists into opening their e-mail accounts to outsiders.
The change-of-heart announced Tuesday heralds a major shift for Google, which has repeatedly said it will obey Chinese laws that require some politically and socially sensitive issues to be blocked from search results that are available in other countries.
Google disclosed in a blog post that it had detected a “highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China.” Further investigation revealed that “a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists,” Google said in the post written by Chief Legal Officer David Drummond.
Google did not specifically accuse the Chinese government. But the company long associated with a motto of “don’t be evil” added that it is “no longer willing to continue censoring our results” on its Chinese search engine, as the government requires. Google said the decision could force it to shut down its Chinese site and its offices in the country.
It’s unclear how much of a blow to its business Google would suffer by pulling out. China has the world’s largest population of Internet users, but Google has struggled to expand in the country, where it has less than 30 percent of the search market, versus more than 60 percent for local rival Baidu Inc.
The larger effect could be in how global Internet companies operate in China.
“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.”
Danny O’Brien, international outreach coordinator at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, said Google’s rejection of government demands to censor “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?'”
But Clothilde Le Coz, Washington director for Reporters Without Borders, warned that Google’s move doesn’t necessarily mean more information will be available to the average Chinese person.
“The Chinese government is one of the most efficient in terms of censoring the Web,” she said. The media watchdog group has long criticized Google and other Internet companies for caving to China’s censorship regime.
A spokesman for the Chinese consulate in San Francisco had no immediate comment.
Google, whose headquarters is in Mountain View, Calif., first agreed to censor search results in China in 2006 when it created a version of its search engine bearing China’s Web suffix, “.cn.” Previously, Chinese-language results had been available through the company’s main Google.com site.
To obtain its Chinese license, Google agreed to omit Web content that the country’s government found objectionable. At the time Google executives said they struggled with how to reconcile the censorship concessions with the company’s “don’t be evil” motto.
By then Yahoo Inc. had come under fire for giving Chinese officials information about the online activities of two journalists, who were then arrested, convicted and sentenced to 10-year prison terms for allegedly leaking state secrets and political writings. Meanwhile, Microsoft Corp. was criticized for shutting down, at Beijing’s request, a popular Chinese blog that touches on sensitive topics such as press freedoms.