Google, the internet search engine, has threatened to pull out of China in a row over censorship.
It has set itself at odds with the authorities in China by declaring that it will stop censoring search results on its Chinese website.
In a shock announcement, the group issued a thinly-veiled attack at official Chinese censors and information police, and said it was prepared to shut down its operations there entirely if the authorities do not allow it to create an unfiltered search engine.
Although it did not directly accuse the Chinese government, the internet giant said it had uncovered evidence that hackers had launched an attack on its websites and on those of “at least twenty” other large companies targeting human rights activists. It added that the gmail accounts of “dozens” of its users in the US, the UK and China itself had also fallen victim to similar attacks.
The move is highly significant: Google was seen as a standard-bearer for modern Chinese internet businesses when, in 2006, it launched in the country, censoring its search results for selected information and topics, on the basis that greater access to information for Chinese citizens outweighed its discomfort at introducing such unprecedented filters. It does not operate such filters in other major countries.
In a blog on the company’s website, its corporate development and chief legal officer, David Drummond, said Google did so then because of the “benefits of increased access to information for people in China and a more open Internet”. However, he said the recent cyber attacks and recent clampdowns on freedom of 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 radical decision is a rare direct affront by a major company against the Chinese government. Most multinationals have, thus far, been willing to forego some of their typical freedoms in exchange for a foothold in the world’s fastest-growing economy. The
Mr Drummond admitted that the company’s decision to operate in China four years ago had courted controversy, but said: “At the time we made clear that 'we will carefully monitor conditions in China, including new laws and other restrictions on our services. If we determine that we are unable to achieve the objectives outlined we will not hesitate to reconsider our approach to China.’”
The blogpost, entitled “A new approach to China”, also admits that the “incredibly hard” decision “will have potentially far-reaching consequences” but insists it was taken solely by the company’s American executives, in comments which are thought to be designed to protect its Chinese employees against potential reprisals.