GOOGLE has thrown down the gauntlet to China by saying it is no longer willing to censor search results on its Chinese service, writes Tania Branigan in The Guardian.
The world's leading search engine said the decision followed a cyber-attack that it believes was aimed at gathering information on Chinese human rights activists. It also cited a clampdown on the internet in China over the past year. Its statement raised the prospect of closing Google.cn and potentially its offices in China.
The Chinese government issued its first, cautious response several hours after the announcement, saying it was "seeking more information". In a statement published via the state news agency Xinhua, an unnamed official from China's state council information office ‑ the cabinet spokesman's office ‑ added: "It is still hard to say whether Google will quit China or not. Nobody knows."
The two sides spoke today. Google confirmed: "We have talked to the Chinese authorities and we will be talking to them more in the coming days."
Google acknowledged that its decision to stop self-censoring "may well mean" the closure of Google.cn and its offices in China. That is an understatement, given that to launch Google.cn it had to agree to censor sensitive material, such as details of human rights groups and references to the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
The US government upped the stakes when it stepped into the row, with the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, urging the Chinese to respond to Google's hacking claims.
Google was in contact with the US state department ahead of its announcement. Department spokesman PJ Crowley said: "Every nation has an obligation, regardless of the origin of malicious cyber-activities, to keep its part of the network secure. That includes China. Every nation should criminalise malicious activities on computer networks."
In a post on the official Google Blog, the company outlined a "highly sophisticated and targeted" attack in December which it believes affected at least 20 other companies: "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."
Human Rights Watch praised the decision and urged other firms to follow suit in challenging censorship. "A transÃƒâ€šÃ‚Ânational attack on privacy is chilling, and Google's response sets a great example," said Arvind Ganesan, director of the group's corporations and human rights programme.
In China, some websites carried accounts of Google's decision, although they did not mention the cyber-attacks. News portals were reportedly told to downgrade the issue, although the Guardian saw articles on major sites including Sina.com. But while many seemed to welcome the firm's decision ‑ some left flowers at the entrance to its Beijing headquarters ‑ others attacked it.
One poster, Weiwoguyan, wrote: "Since you are in China you need to obey Chinese law ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â¦ Do not use it to threaten China."
A prominent liberal blogger, Ran Yunfei, wrote on his blog: "Google leaving China is definitely not good news." Comparing the decision to dissidents who choose to emigrate, he added: "Those are obedient citizens and [their choice] is satisfactory to the authorities."
Click here to read the full report, posted on The Guardian's website.