Google today said that a "highly sophisticated and targeted" attack against its network last month originated in China, and tried to access the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.
In a blog post Tuesday, David Drummond, Google's chief legal officer, said that attacks have forced the company to "review the feasibility of our business operations in China." Google, continued Drummond, is "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."
The end result of those discussions, said Drummond, may be that Google shuts down its search engine and close its offices in the People's Republic of China.
"This is a bold and a very difficult move on [Google's] part," said Leslie Harris, the president and CEO of the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT), a Washington, D.C.-based civil liberties group. "But with the revelations that there have been major cyber attacks aimed at human rights activists, both in China and in the West, it's hard to see how Google could have remained silent."
According to Drummond, Google was one of at least 20 large companies that were targeted by massive attacks in December. In Google's case, the attacks resulted in the theft of some company intellectual property.
More troubling, said Drummond, was that the attacks were aimed at accessing the Gmail accounts of human rights activists in China. Gmail is officially unavailable in the country, but activists and others use anonymous proxies to circumvent that rule.
"We have evidence to suggest that a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists," said Drummond, who added that with the exception of two accounts, those attacks had been unsuccessful. The message content of those accounts was not compromised, Drummond claimed; instead, only some information, such as subject lines and the date the account was created, was accessed.
Drummond also said Google had discovered that the Gmail accounts of dozens of U.S.- and Europe-based advocates of human rights in China had been "routinely" accessed by unauthorized users.
"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," said Drummond.
Google launched its Chinese-language search engine at google.cn in early 2006, and at the time spelled out its position on business in the country. "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 company said four years ago.
The disturbing nature of the attacks, as well as what Drummond called "attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the Web" by Chinese authorities, gave the company pause, then led it to a decision.
"Any company in China has to constantly monitor the situation," said Harris of the CDT. "And at some point, it may be untenable. Google made that very clear when it went into China. It appears that Google has decided that the risks to their users and their own values outweigh the benefit of operating in China."
Harris declined to speculate on what impact a Google withdrawal from China would have on other technology firms that operate in the country -- both Microsoft and Yahoo, for instance, have a presence there -- but said she expected Google to face resistance if it did pull out. "I can't imagine this was an easy decision for them," she said. "They're certain to get push-back from some shareholders."
If Google does end up closing shop in China, Harris acknowledged that it would be a setback for the idea that Western companies could change China's position on issues such as human rights. "I don't think that [this idea] has had the impact we would have liked, but it has had a huge impact on access of information that China's citizens now have," she argued.
Like Drummond of Google, Harris noted that recent moves by the Chinese government have been hard to stomach. "They've become increasingly shrill about what a company makes available, who can have blogs and domains in the country," she said. "They've been piling on the restrictions."
But the battle isn't over, even if Google leaves, Harris said. "The fact is, [the Chinese government] cannot control all information. That's the hope we've always had, that at some point technology wins."
Drummond did not set a timetable for the discussions Google wants to have with Chinese authorities, or, failing a settlement agreeable to both sides, a deadline for any decision to withdraw from the country and shutter its search site.
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed .