Internet search-engine giant Google has suggested it may close down its operations in China following a string of reported cyber attacks on its services, and after months of confrontation between the company and Chinese authorities over censorship issues.

Google faced “highly sophisticated” cyber attacks in mid-December that reportedly originated from China. The attacks resulted in the theft of intellectual property, and targeted the accounts of several Chinese human rights activists, Google’s Chief Legal Officer David Drummond said in a statement on Wednesday.

Mr. Drummond also said Google was “no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn,” its Chinese-language search-engine.

Google launched a Chinese-language search engine in 2006. Back then, the company was criticised by Internet-freedom watchdogs and Western human rights groups for willing to censor politically-sensitive information, as it sought to establish a presence in China’s fast-growing Internet market. With 338 million Internet users, China has the world’s biggest Internet population.

Censorship issues

The Chinese government censors a number of politically-sensitive Websites, such as those discussing the Tiananmen Square protests, the Falun Gong movement or Tibet. Google largely followed the government’s regulations : searches on Google.cn on sensitive issues yielded restricted results, along with a disclosure that Google “followed local laws and regulations.”

Google officials argued then that the “benefits of increased access to information for people in China outweighed our discomfort in agreeing to censor some results.”

But in four years in China, Google has struggled to expand its footprint. It has remained a far second to Chinese search engine Baidu.com which enjoys a dominant 63 per cent market-share. Google’s share of the Chinese market has been estimated at around 30 per cent by a number of Internet research firms.

Google’s relationship with the Chinese government has particularly worsened in the past 12 months, despite its self-censorship policies.

In June, access to Google was partially disrupted in several Chinese cities, following accusations from Chinese authorities that the Website linked to pornographic material in its search results. Google was “strongly condemned” then by the China Internet Illegal Information Reporting Centre, a watchdog supported by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, for “violating national regulations”. Google’s suspension was part of wider crackdown on pornography launched by the government in January 2009, which closed down more than one thousand Websites.

‘An unusual step’

Mr. Drummond said Google will hold talks with the Chinese government in coming weeks exploring the possibility of operating “an unfiltered search engine within the law”.

“We recognise this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn , and potentially our offices in China,” he said.

He said Google took the “unusual step” of sharing information about the cyber attacks on some of its accounts “not just because of the security and human rights implications of what we have unearthed, butalso because this information goes to the heart of a much bigger global debate about freedom of speech.”

United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday Google’s accusation of cyber attacks raised “serious concerns and questions.”

“We look to the Chinese government for an explanation,” she said. China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology could not be reached for comment.