Today Google announced on its blog that it had been the target of a China-based cyberattack in mid-December. David Drummond, a senior vice president of the firm, wrote the hackers succeeded in stealing some intellectual property seemed to be aimed at accessing the GMail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. The unwritten assertion is that the Chinese government backed the attack in some way. Google is responding by refusing to continue censoring search results in China and preparing to cease operations in China entirely if necessary to maintain that policy:
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.
The decision to review our business operations in China has been incredibly hard, and we know that it will have potentially far-reaching consequences.
It is a momentous decision, and it seems that Google deserves great credit for refusing this latest despotic act.
Sadly, Drummond found it necessary to provide cover for China-based Google employees by including this disclaimer at the end of the blog post:
We want to make clear that this move was driven by our executives in the United States, without the knowledge or involvement of our employees in China who have worked incredibly hard to make Google.cn the success it is today.
The original decision to expand into China while censoring search results was a calculated one, and it raised questions about the extent to which Google was willing to compromise free speech in order to capture that potentially vast market. This announcement sends the message that the company is not willing to go far at all, at least any longer.
Of course, Google is still a business, interested in making money. The best case scenario is that Google is betting that they are too important in China for the government to call their bluff and refuse to let Google stop censoring searches. Obviously Google has information that we don’t. Hopefully what they’re seeing is that they can find a way to provide uncensored web searchs to the Chinese without horribly compromising human rights.
Needless to say, it would be nice to see Bing and Yahoo announce that they are also not willing to compromise…