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Google has issued a shock announcement that it is to end censoring the results of its Google.cn search engine, after a series of hacking attacks that it says was aimed at human rights activists.
The company said in a posting on its corporate blog that Google and at least 20 other companies had been the target of a hacking attack in December.
Google claims to have seen evidence that the attacks were aimed at accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.
"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," wrote David Drummond, chief legal officer at Google.
"We have decided that we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, 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 recognise that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China."
Drummond explained that the December attacks were largely unsuccessful, and resulted only in partial access to two Gmail accounts.
However, the search giant has also discovered that dozens of human rights campaigners in Europe, the US and China are routinely having their Gmail accounts accessed by third parties, and suspects that the login details could have been stolen using malware.
Google started operations in China in 2006 and was widely criticised for its decision to bow to Chinese demands that the information on the site should be censored. Searches for Tiananmen Square, for example, would bring up no mention of the 1989 massacre.
Google co-founder Sergey Brin said later that he regretted the decision, and Drummond made clear that the initial decision to censor was not binding.
"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," said Drummond.
"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."
Google's move is one of the first times that a Western company has taken on the Chinese government in this way. Companies like Yahoo routinely pass user details to the authorities, despite widespread international criticism and legal action, but today's announcement will throw down the gauntlet to the Chinese authorities.
Google.cn has a strong market share in China and pulling out completely would be a blow to the company, albeit one that it can afford for now. Clearly, the evidence of hacking that Google has amassed is compelling.