CBSN

Google to Stop Search Censorship in China

Google logo, and China Flag-map with code
AP / CBS
This article was written by CNET News.com's Tom Krazit.

Google no longer intends to censor search results in China, and if the Chinese government balks, it may take its servers and go home.

The stunning change in Google's policy toward doing business in China--which was always a complicated dance--came after Google discovered that it and other businesses were the victims of "a highly sophisticated and targeted attack" aimed at gathering information about human rights activists. It is not clear whether the Chinese government was behind the attacks, which Google said in a blog post were also directed against other U.S. companies.

Google released a lengthy blog post authored by David Drummond, senior vice president of corporate development and chief legal officer Tuesday afternoon, discussing the decision to review its policy toward 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. 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."

Google entered China in 2006 with the launch of Google.cn. It knew at the time that it would be forced to censor search results in accordance with the policies of the Chinese government. But it figured it could live up to its famous "don't be evil" pledge without passing up the business opportunity in the fast-growing Chinese market by simply notifying Web searchers that their results had been censored due to local laws.

However, in practice that has been a tricky balance between Google's desire to spread information around the world and the Chinese government's desire to limit the amount of information available on sensitive topics, such as the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. The Chinese government is believed to issue very vague guidelines as to what type of content is permitted, and what is not. The end result is that many Internet companies in China censor far more than the government would actually deem offensive.

Google did not say exactly which human-rights activists were targeted by the attack, nor would it comment on whether or not it believed the Chinese government was behind the attacks. The attackers were unable to obtain the contents of Gmail messages written by two human-rights activists in China, but they were able to access account information and the subject lines of an unspecified number of e-mails.

In addition, Google said it determined that someone was able to gain access to the accounts several Gmail users who were human rights activists, which the company said was the result of phishing schemes rather than a security breach.

An industry source familiar with Google's investigation described the incidents over the past several months as "the straw that broke the camel's back," as far as Google's presence in China was concerned. Google is expected to meet with Chinese government officials over the next several weeks to discuss whether or not it will be permitted to offer an uncensored search engine.

A cash machine in other parts of the world, Google has struggled to replicate that success in China. Baidu is as dominant in China as Google is in the rest of the world, and Google trails it by a significant margin. Kai-Fu Lee, the subject of a fierce courtroom battle between Microsoft and Google over his acceptance of a job running Google's China operations, left the company last year to start his own business.

Representatives for Microsoft and Yahoo did not immediately respond to inquiries regarding whether or not their policies regarding search in China would change as the result of Google's decision. A U.S. representative for Baidu also did not return a call seeking comment on Google's intention to offer an uncensored search engine in China.

By Tom Krazit