Google Throws Down the Gauntlet in China Over Human Rights and Censorship

Last Updated Jan 13, 2010 9:55 AM EST

In one of the most stunning developments in its remarkable 11-year history, Google (GOOG) today announced that it is prepared to shut down operations in the world's largest country, China, unless the Chinese government ends its censorship of search results there.

Posting on the company's official blog, David Drummond, Google's SVP, 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."

In the same post, Drummond reveals that last month, the company "detected a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google."

Upon further investigation, Google determined that "a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists." In addition, "we have discovered that 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. 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."

Although Drummond does not say so, the clear implication of his post is that the Chinese government -- or its agents -- were behind these attacks. As context for its decision to take a stand against such infringement of users' rights, Drummond notes:

"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. 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."

"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."

it's hard to imagine another company with so much to lose in China taking the action Google is taking. Not even the Obama administration has found enough chutzpah to stand up to the oppressive government that routinely censors what its citizens can see or hear or read -- a blatant violation of civil and human rights that would not be tolerated, say, in a weaker trade partner.

At a time when it has been coming under increasingly shrill attacks from opponents of such initiatives as its book-scanning project, who accuse the company of failing to live up to its motto to "do no evil," Google is clearly -- in this case -- taking a highly principled stand.

Perhaps other companies and governments will now follow its lead.

  • David Weir

    David Weir is a veteran journalist who has worked at Rolling Stone, California, Mother Jones, Business 2.0, SunDance, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, MyWire, 7x7, and the Center for Investigative Reporting, which he cofounded in 1977. He’s also been a content executive at KQED, Wired Digital, Salon.com, and Excite@Home. David has published hundreds of articles and three books,including "Raising Hell: How the Center for Investigative Reporting Gets Its Story," and has been teaching journalism for more than 20 years at U.C. Berkeley, San Francisco State University, and Stanford.