UPDATE 4:31 PM ET: Get latest updates on Google's China developments on our liveblog here.
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SAN FRANCISCO — Google Inc. will stop censoring its search results in China and may pull out of the country after discovering that computers hackers had tricked human rights activists into opening their e-mail accounts to outsiders.
The change-of-heart announced Tuesday heralds a major shift for Google, which has repeatedly said it will obey Chinese laws that require some politically and socially sensitive issues to be blocked from search results that are available in other countries
Google disclosed in a blog post that it had detected a "highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China." Further investigation revealed that "a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists," Google said in the post written by Chief Legal Officer David Drummond.
Google did not specifically accuse the Chinese government. But the company added that it is "no longer willing to continue censoring our results" on its Chinese search engine, as the government requires. Google says the decision could force it to shut down its Chinese site and its offices in the country.
An excerpt from Google's blog post about Google.cn:
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. 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."
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. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and 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 recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.
It's unclear how much of a blow to its business Google would suffer by pulling out of China. The country has the world's largest population of Internet users but research firm Analysys International said last year that Baidu.com handled 62 percent of Web searches in China compared with 29 percent for Google.
Clothilde Le Coz, Washington director for Reporters Without Borders, called Google's willingness to stop censoring results a positive step, but added it doesn't necessarily mean more information will be available to the average Chinese person.
"The Chinese government is one of the most efficient in terms of censoring the Web," she said. The media watchdog group has long criticized Google and other Internet companies for caving to China's censorship regime.
A spokesman for the Chinese consulate in San Francisco had no immediate comment.
Google first agreed to censor search results in China in 2006 when it created a version of its search engine bearing China's Web suffix, ".cn." Previously, Chinese-language results had been available through the company's main Google.com site.
To obtain its Chinese license, Google agreed to omit Web content that the country's government found objectionable. At the time Google executives said they struggled with how to reconcile the censorship concessions with the company's motto of "don't be evil." By then Yahoo had come under fire for giving the Chinese government account information of a Chinese journalist who was later convicted for violating state secrecy laws.
AP Technology Writers Barbara Ortutay in New York and Jessica Mintz in Seattle contributed to this story.
On the Net:
Google post: http://bit.ly/6vGb9S