Google Inc. says its threat to close its Beijing office and pull out of the Chinese market comes after China-based cyber spies attacked Google's computers in an apparent bid to hack into the e-mail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.
Bill Echikson, senior manager of communications for Google, told RFE/RL today that his firm alerted U.S. authorities about the cyberattack after they discovered it in mid-December of 2009.
"We discovered that Google had been the target and that the hackers were accessing gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists," Echikson said.
"We don't believe they achieved their goal, but our investigation revealed that in addition to Google, more than 20 other big companies had been similarly targeted. And separate from those attacks, we discovered that gmail accounts of dozens of human rights activists interested in China were routinely accessed -- not via e-google but using phishing scams and malware."
As a result, Echikson says Google will no longer filter its Internet search engine results in China as it has been doing for years and that the company will be talking to the Chinese authorities about the possibility of operating an uncensored search service within China. If that's impossible, Echikson says, "we will close [the Chinese office and search engine] google.cn."
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has denied any link to the cyber attacks. Echikson says Google is still investigating the sophisticated cyber attack and would not speculate on whether Chinese authorities were involved.
In addition to the possible end of Google's business in China, analysts say the incident may signal the start of a harder line toward China by U.S. President Barack Obama's administration.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement that Washington wants an explanation from Beijing about the cyberattacks. Clinton says the ability for people to operate with confidence in cyberspace is critical in a modern society and economy. She said Washington would have further comment as the facts in the case become clear.
Clinton aide Alec Ross said the secretary of state will unveil a new technical policy initiative on "Internet freedom" next week. Ross said Washington's policies on Internet freedom are, in part, a response to the fact that there are countries around the world that "systematically stifle" their citizens' access to information -- "from the Caucasus to China to Iran to Cuba and elsewhere."
Strained U.S.-China Relations
Relations between Beijing and Washington already are strained over issues like climate change, trade, and China's refusal to back UN sanctions against Iran for its controversial nuclear program.
Analysts at Eurasia Group, a leading global political-risk research and consulting firm, say U.S.-China relations are a top risk of 2010. Eurasia Group predicts a "significant deterioration in U.S.-Chinese relations in the coming year" because of economic, security, and cybersecurity pressures.
Human rights activists have welcomed the fact that Google has publicly announced the cyberattacks they've experienced and their concerns about the censorship they have to operate under in under to do business in China.
Roseann Rife, the deputy director of Amnesty International's Asia Pacific Program, says that "the report about the hacking and trying to get into e-mail accounts of human rights defenders is very worrying."
"We've noted over the years a number of attacks on nongovernmental organizations, both inside China and outside China. It's very common to see that kind of attack, trying to enter into your own e-mail, and it's very worrying," Rife says.
There were signs of support in Beijing today from some Chinese citizens who placed roses outside of Google's office building there.
Chinese artists and human rights activist Ai Weiwei says he welcomes Google's announcement.
"By doing this today, Google, at the very least, has expressed the opinion of a lot of people in the society on this kind of behavior and, of course, this will influence not just China, but the whole world. The discussion on the right to privacy, personal freedom of speech, and tolerance of expression, I think, is extremely important," Ai says.
With Google's share price falling 1.3 percent on news of the dispute in China, technology-sector analysts also are watching developments closely.
Duncan Clark, chairman of the advisory firm BDA, notes that a Chinese firm called Baidu operates the largest Internet search engine in China. Clark says Google executives may feel they have nothing to lose in the long run by pulling out of China since their firm is not the leading search engine in the market.
"But I think [Google is] beginning to feel that even maintaining a minimal presence here, as they had already planned, may be compromising, potentially, their own company principles and their own, potentially, reputation in the U.S. in this critical year," Clark says.
For its part, Baidu's website also appears to have been targeted by hackers. People accessing the web page of Baidu on January 12 found it covered with a picture of the Iranian flag and other symbols along with the words "Iranian Cyber Army."
A group calling itself "Iranian Cyber Army" had hacked into the Twitter social network last month after it had served as a communication tool for pro-democracy forces in Iran.
By the afternoon of January 12, cybersecurity experts reported that Chinese flags and nationalist slogans were appearing on websites registered in Iran.