Google has said that it will stop doing business in China unless it can operate without government-imposed censorship. The announcement follows hacks of Google's systems that it said were intended to snoop on the email accounts of human rights activists.
A Google statement said that when launching Chinese service Google.cn in 2006 it accepted government censorship of the results it could display.
"We launched Google.cn in January 2006 in the belief that the benefits of increased access to information for people in China and a more open Internet outweighed our discomfort in agreeing to censor some results," said Google's chief legal officer David Drummond. "These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered – combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free 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," he said.
Many companies have faced criticism for operating in tandem with the Chinese government, whose censorship, use of the death penalty and interference in the judicial system are frequently criticised by humans rights organisations.
"We've repeatedly urged Google and other companies to abide by their own stated business principles and provide unbiased, accurate and free access to information," said Amnesty International's UK director Kate Allen. "'It's very welcome news that Google appears to be moving back towards these principles. This now lays down the gauntlet to other Internet companies operating in China: to be transparent about what filtering and censorship the government requires them to do. And to stand up for free speech where they can, using legal appeals and other judicial measures."
"Internet repression continues unabated in China. Search results are filtered and sites are blocked or closed down. People are still in jail for what they have written online," she said.
Google said that its systems had been the subject of sophisticated attacks in December and that when it analysed them it found that they were designed to gain unauthorised access to the Google email accounts of Chinese human rights activists.
"We have evidence to suggest that a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. Based on our investigation to date we believe their attack did not achieve that objective," said Google's Drummond.
"We have discovered that the accounts of dozens of US, China and Europe-based Gmail users who are advocates of human rights in China appear to have been routinely accessed by third parties. These accounts have not been accessed through any security breach at Google, but most likely via phishing scams or malware placed on the users' computers," he said.
Google has struggled to challenge the dominance of China's biggest search engine, Baidu. Its co-operation with government censorship has tarnished its reputation outside of China. Google comes under greater ethical scrutiny than other firms because of its much-trumpeted founding principle: don't be evil.
Other companies, such as Yahoo!, have also struggled with ethical and business concerns. None has seriously challenged Baidu, and Yahoo! faced international condemnation when it provided Chinese authorities with the details of a Chinese journalist who used its services to post on a pro-democracy forum. He was then arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft later signed a pact which bound them to refuse to hand over subscriber details if doing so would break international human rights law.