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Google always has the attention of the tech industry, but today it really turned heads. The company announced that it might pull out of China, rather than continue to censor search results on its Chinese site. The move also comes after a series of cyber attacks from within China that targeted the Gmail accounts of human rights activists in China, the U.S. and Europe.

NPR's Laura Sydell reports.

LAURA SYDELL: In a blog on its Web site, Google said it could not pin the latest attacks on the Chinese government. But the blog's author, chief legal counsel David Drummond, says it was politically motivated.

Mr. DAVID DRUMMOND (Chief Legal Counsel, Google): It's very clear that they were after the ability to access Gmail accounts and, indeed, the ability to access accounts of Chinese human rights activists.

SYDELL: Drummond says Google's investigation has determined that some of the attacks were directed at the accounts of individual human rights activists in the form of malware.

Mr. DRUMMOND: Someone would get an email they thought they could trust. There'd be a link in it, and you'd click on an email and all of a sudden you have a software on your computer that does nefarious things like record your passwords or send information back to a hacker.

SYDELL: Drummond says there are always cyber attacks, but the size and scope of this one was exceptional. It has made company officials feel that they no longer want to comply with Chinese government requests to censor search results. Drummond says Google agreed to that four years ago because it thought its presence there might make the situation better.

Mr. DRUMMOND: But as it's turned out, things seem to be more restrictive. We see these attacks, and we just feel that we just simply can't continue to operate that way.

SYDELL: Drummond says company representatives plan to talk with the Chinese government and see if there's any way for them to stay in the country without complying with the censorship rules. But even if Google shuts down its China operations, it doesn't mean that it won't still face the threat of attacks from within China.

This is not an issue that is unique to Google in China. Back in December, Twitter servers were shut down by attackers in Iran. There's no direct link to the government, but Jonathan Zittrain of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard says authoritarian countries are getting more savvy about how to use the Internet for political purposes.

Professor JONATHAN ZITTRAIN (Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Harvard University): In the sense of being more careful about whom they are attacking and within a given site maybe trying to compromise a single account within it.

SYDELL: U.S. military and government officials are also reporting that they've been the target of attacks from inside China. Unfortunately, being able to prove the identity of the attackers is nearly impossible, says Gregory Nojeim of the Center for Democracy and Technology. And that makes it harder to actually stop them.

Mr. GREGORY NOJEIM (Center for Democracy and Technology): You wouldn't want to respond to an attack thinking it came from the government of China with diplomacy directed at China, when, in fact, it came from a person who wasn't under the control of the government.

SYDELL: The U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke has responded with a more general request to China. He's asked officials there to ensure a secure commercial environment for Google and other U.S. companies. Google officials say 20 other companies experienced the attacks, but only Adobe has publicly acknowledged being a target.

Google is getting praise from human rights groups for its willingness to speak out. But getting out of China isn't likely to make Google or anyone else safe from politically motivated attacks.

Laura Sydell, NPR News.

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