BEIJING: The Internet search-engine giant Google has indicated that it may close down its operations in China following a string of reported cyber attacks on its services. Its decision follows months of confrontation with 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. He said Google was “no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn,” its Chinese-language search-engine.
Officials from Google met with Chinese authorities on Wednesday, sources said, and put forward a proposal for an “unfiltered” search-engine that would operate within the boundaries of Chinese laws. If the proposals are not accepted, Google will likely close down its China operations.
Google launched a Chinese-language search engine in 2006, after agreeing to censor any information regarded as sensitive by the Chinese government. The government restricts access to a number of politically-sensitive websites, such as those discussing the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, the banned Falun Gong movement or Tibet.
Google has in the past faced criticism from Internet-freedom watchdogs and human rights groups for its self- censorship, as the company 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. In its four years in China, Google has tailored its search-engine to suit government requirements: searches on Google.cn yield restricted results on sensitive issues, along with a disclosure that Google “follows local laws and regulations.”
But the website has struggled to expand its footprint in China. It has remained a far second to Chinese search-engine Baidu.com, which enjoys a dominant 63 per cent market-share compared to Google’s 30 per cent share. Google has an estimated 40 million users in China.
News of the website’s possible pull-out generated heated discussion on online forums and blogs here. Some university students in Beijing placed bouquets of flowers outside the company’s offices in the city.
Google’s relationship with the Chinese government has worsened over the past 12 months. In June, access to the website was partially disrupted in several Chinese cities, following accusations from authorities that the website linked to pornographic material in its search results.
The China Internet Illegal Information Reporting Centre, a watchdog supported by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, “strongly condemned” Google for “violating national regulations.” The website’s suspension was part of wider crackdown on pornography, launched by the government in January 2009, which closed down more than one thousand websites.
Chinese officials issued no public statement on Wednesday, but an unnamed official at the State Council Information Office told State-run Xinhua agency that the government was waiting for information from Google.
“It is still hard to say whether Google will quit China or not,” the official said. “Nobody knows.”