HONG KONG—Google's announcement this week that it will quit filtering its Web-based searches in China and may leave the country altogether may affect the operations of other foreign firms in China, sources said.
“Google has posed a tremendous challenge to the Chinese government,” Internet research expert Isaac Mao said on Twitter. “This may turn into an international case study on how the Chinese government deals with the independent operations of an international company.”
In a surprise announcement, Google said Tuesday it would quit blocking politically sensitive information searches—a requirement set by China’s government—after what it called “a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China.”
The cyber-attack appeared to be aimed at Chinese human rights activists using Google’s Gmail service and at more than 30 other companies, including Adobe Systems, Google said.
After the announcement, searches on the google.cn search engine turned up images and sites previously blocked, including pictures from the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Beijing. Other searches remained restricted, carrying messages warning users that some content was blocked.
China’s ruling Communist Party, wary of the Internet becoming an uncontrolled forum for the country’s 360 million users, is unlikely to allow Google to avoid repercussions.
Google has been under fire for years from rights groups and others for bowing to Chinese government demands that it restrict online access to “sensitive” information as a condition of doing business in the country.
“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,” Google said in a statement.
“We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down [China-based] Google.cn and potentially our offices in China.”
Mao wrote that he had warned Google in 2007 about China’s efforts to censor the Internet.
“A few years ago, I warned Google that if they kept compromising, they would corner themselves,” he said.
Attempts on Wednesday to contact Google’s Beijing office for comment were unsuccessful, and China hasn’t commented on Google's allegations or announcement.
Chinese authorities are “seeking more information on Google’s statement,” the official Xinhua news agency reported, citing an unnamed official from China’s State Council Information Office, the government arm of the country’s propaganda system.
Praise from rights groups
Media freedom and human rights groups that had criticized Google’s earlier compliance with Chinese curbs praised the company’s decision and called for other firms to follow suit.
“A foreign IT [information technology] company has finally accepted its responsibilities toward Chinese users and is standing up to the Chinese authorities, who keep clamping down more and more on the Internet,” Reporters Without Borders said.
“In the face of repeated and increasingly sophisticated cyber-attacks and humiliating treatment by the Chinese authorities, who accuse them of not doing enough to block sensitive information, Google has decided to take a tougher line and is setting its own conditions for continuing to operate in China.”
New York-based rights group Human Rights in China said Google’s difficulties in China should remind foreign firms involved in information exchange of the risks of doing business there.
“The outcome of the negotiations between Google and the Chinese government may affect the working environment in which foreign companies conduct their business in China,” Tan Jingchang, executive director of Human Rights in China, said.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs sidestepped questions about the possible impact on U.S.-China relations of the alleged cyber-attacks and said Washington awaits an explanation.
“The president and this administration have beliefs about freedom of the Internet,” Gibbs said.
Also calling for an explanation from China, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, "The ability to operate with confidence in cyberspace is critical in a modern society and economy."
Sen. Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said he is drafting legislation to strengthen U.S. cyber security.
“Google’s experience should be a lesson to us all to confront this ever-growing problem aggressively and with all available means,” he said in a statement.
China has denied sponsoring hacking.
Beijing-based blogger An Ti supported Google’s decision.
“Now, people want to see how the Chinese government will respond to Google’s announcement … We have to wait and see how things turn out, as this is a huge event,” he wrote.
China’s policy of filtering and restricting access to Web sites has been a frequent source of tension with the United States and tech companies, such as Google and its key rival, Yahoo Inc.
In a statement Wednesday, Yahoo said it is “aligned” with Google’s reaction to the hacking that originated within China.
Before selling its Chinese business, Yahoo’s cooperation with the Chinese government had angered human rights activists and U.S. lawmakers.
Much of the criticism focused on Yahoo’s role in the jailing of two Chinese journalists. The evidence against them included e-mail that Yahoo turned over to the Chinese government.
Original reporting by RFA’s Mandarin and Cantonese services. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Written in English by Richard Finney and Sarah Jackson-Han.