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Google Threatens To Shut Down Operations In China

Search engine giant Google is threatening to shut down its operations in China after it uncovered evidence that Chinese government might be hacking into Gmail accounts of human rights activists.

Google hacking

Pulling out of China would have broad implications for the development of the Internet in that country, industry observers say, as well as further limiting access to information for Chinese citizens.

Google also said it will no longer agree to censor its results on Google.cn, potentially setting up a confrontation with Chinese government.

In mid-December Google detected "a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google," wrote David Drummond, senior vice president of corporate development and chief legal officer at Google, in a blog posted Tuesday afternoon with the heading "A new approach to China."

Drummond said Google has evidence "to suggest that a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists." Two Gmail accounts were accessed with the activity limited to account information, such as when the account was created, and subject lines, rather than content of the e-mails themselves.

The investigation turned up evidence that "at least 20 other large companies" in the Internet, finance, technology, media and chemical sectors were also targeted, Drummond said. Google is now notifying those companies about its findings, as well as "working with the relevant U.S. authorities."

But the investigation also turned up evidence that aside from the December incident, "the accounts of dozens of U.S.-, China- and Europe-based Gmail users who are advocates of human rights in China appear to have been routinely accessed by third parties," the blog said. The accounts were most likely accessed via phishing scams or malware placed on users' computers, rather than through a security breach at Google.

"We have taken the unusual step of sharing information about these attacks with a broad audience not just because of the security and human rights implications of what we have unearthed, but also because this information goes to the heart of a much bigger global debate about freedom of speech," Drummond wrote.

Google launched its operations in China, Google.cn, in January 2006 and at the time agreed to Chinese government demands that Google censor some search results. Drummond noted that at the time Google made it clear that it would monitor conditions in China, including new laws and restrictions on Google services.

"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," Drummond wrote. "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.

Should Google pull out of China, the country will become more dependent on Baidu.com, a China-specific search engine that has a 63 percent market share in that country compared to Google's 33 percent, according to statistics from iResearch, an Internet consulting firm, cited in a story posted this morning on The New York Times Web site.

The story said Baidu closely complies with the Chinese government's tight Internet regulations and Internet content censorship.

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