By Frank James

Google is threatening to pull its business out of China after reporting that its users in China were the subject of a cyberattack in which one of the major focuses appears to have been the gmail accounts of human-rights activists both in China as well as Europe and the U.S.

The attacks occurred in December, Google said, and not only affected activists but at least 20 companies as well. It's clear from what Google is saying that its suspicisons fall on the

In a blog post titled "New Approach to China" David Drummond, Google's Senior Vice President, Corporate Development and Chief Legal Officer, writes:

Like many other well-known organizations, we face cyber attacks of varying degrees on a regular basis. In mid-December, we detected a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google. However, it soon became clear that what at first appeared to be solely a security incident--albeit a significant one--was something quite different.
First, this attack was not just on Google. As part of our investigation we have discovered that at least twenty other large companies from a wide range of businesses--including the Internet, finance, technology, media and chemical sectors--have been similarly targeted. We are currently in the process of notifying those companies, and we are also working with the relevant U.S. authorities.
Second, we have evidence to suggest that a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. Based on our investigation to date we believe their attack did not achieve that objective. Only two Gmail accounts appear to have been accessed, and that activity was limited to account information (such as the date the account was created) and subject line, rather than the content of emails themselves.
Third, as part of this investigation but independent of the attack on Google, 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.

Because of this, Google is making an astonishing threat: it will no longer submit to Chinese censorship and filtering of its various services. It will depart China if the government there doesn't relent.

Another excerpt:

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. 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.

This is very significant and if it weren't for the Haitian earthquake this could easily be the major headline of the evening.

Human-rights activists around the world have pounded Google at length for bowing to censorship and filtering in China.

Now it's likely Google will be roundly cheered for drawing a line in the sand by supporters of greater freedoms in China.

Also, those who cherish the openness of the Internet are likely to lavish praise on the company.

So Google is likely to have enhanced its brand with its new stance.

But it's hard to imagine the Chinese government kowtowing to Google, a government that's mostly accustomed to being treated with kid gloves, even when dealing with the world's only remaining military superpower, the U.S.

This is a huge confrontation between the two economic powerhouses of our time, one a nation-state and one a company that could be a nation, that people the world over will be watching closely.

categories: Technology

8:29 - January 12, 2010