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Google (s GOOG), in response to what it called “a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure” aimed at penetrating the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists, said today it will cease censoring results on Google.cn. The move will likely trigger Google to be blocked in China, and the company to shut down its offices there.
Gmail and Google search are not the same product, so the fact that Google has connected them signals a broader distrust of the Chinese government and the way it controls Internet access for those who have not figured out how to punch through the Great Firewall. A Google blog post authored by David Drummond, SVP of corporate development and the company’s chief legal officer, refers to “these attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered.”
Drummond said that at least 20 other companies were targeted in the attacks, and that the Chinese human rights activists’ accounts were being “routinely accessed” through phishing and malware. He doesn’t state whether Google knows who the attackers were.
To date, Google is the only foreign Internet company that has been able to build its own market share in China; by contrast, Yahoo (s YHOO), eBay (s EBAY) and MySpace (s NWS) fell apart, and Facebook is blocked. To operate within China a company must get a license, store its servers there and comply with censors, something Google began doing in 2006. At the time, it justified the move by saying it was expanding access to information to more users.
As of December, Google had 17 percent search market share in China, compared to 77 percent for Baidu (s BIDU), according to the Chinese search company.
Drummond writes today that:
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 also took pains to say that it has already improved its security and that it believes the attacks had nothing to do with the safety of cloud computing.
Image by Flickr user googlisti.