Google has said it will end the controversial censorship of its search service in China and risk being thrown out of the world’s most populous internet market, following what it claimed were China-based attempts to hack into its systems and those of other international companies.

The dramatic gesture, which Google discussed with the US government beforehand, marks a new low in the deteriorating cyber-relations between China and the rest of the world, following a spate of online attacks and efforts to tighten web censorship.

Several people laid down flowers and wreaths outside Google’s offices in the Zhongguancun high-tech district in a northwestern corner of Beijing. When security guards called the move “illegal”, the phrase “illegal flower donation” became an instant target for online mockery.

Bloggers and other commentators online raised alarm over the risk that a potential pullout of Google could leave China’s internet even more unfree as the US company’s drastic step followed a series of moves by Beijing to tighten internet censorship over the past year.

US intelligence officials believe hackers supported by the Chinese government have been behind major breaches at US defence contractors, who have in some cases been targeted using the same previous unknown software vulnerabilities as trick emails sent to Chinese dissidents.

The group also said it had begun encrypting all e-mail messages after it had found evidence of attempts to break into its Gmail system, with partial success in two cases, and many other attempts to trick “dozens” of human rights activists around the world in order to access to their email.

Google said that in mid-December it had identified a “highly sophisticated and targeted attack” on its corporate systems “originating in China”. The group added that it had found evidence of similar attacks on “at least” 20 other companies in finance, the media and other sectors.

One person close to Google said that the company had no evidence that the cyber-attacks were sanctioned by the Chinese government. However, another person familiar with its thinking said that it would not have taken such a drastic measure had it not believed the attacks had official backing.

A Google statement on its blog said: “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.“

“Tiananmen”, the Beijing square that was the site of the 1989 crackdown on student protesters as well as other historical events, was at the top on Wednesday of Google.cn’s “fastest rising search keywords”. Three searches related to Google’s China announcement were also in the top 10. Searches on the site continued to carry a message that search results were screened to comply with local law.

Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, said: “We have been briefed by Google on these allegations, which raise very serious concerns and questions. We look to the Chinese government for an explanation. The ability to operate with confidence in cyberspace is critical in a modern society and economy. I will be giving an address next week on the centrality of internet freedom in the 21st century, and we will have further comment on this matter as the facts become clear.”

With just under a third of the market, Google is the second-largest search engine in China behind leader Baidu. Google shares fell 1.3 percent to $582.90 in early trading in New York on Wednesday, while those of Baidu, its Chinese rival, rallied 14 per cent to $441.14, as a withdrawal by Google would consolidate its dominance. Ironically, the Chinese website itself was attacked by Iranian hackers on Tuesday. People accessing Baidu.com in the morning found it was covered with a picture of the Iranian flag and other symbols and the words “Iranian Cyber Army”.

Ending the self-imposed censorship of its Chinese search service marks a reversal of one of Google’s most controversial decisions, its 2006 agreement to block certain websites in return for being able to run a local Chinese service.

That decision brought global criticism and led to considerable hand-wringing inside Google, with some senior executives led by co-founder Sergey Brin deeply uncomfortable about the move. The question of whether Google should pull out of China was given more serious consideration midway through last year, according to one person close to the company, though another said that the cyber-attacks had been the clear trigger.

”I think this is a significant step to underscore how the company feels about freedom of expression and privacy online,” said Arvind Ganesan, business and human rights programme director at Human Rights Watch. “More important, it underscores the lengths governments will go to to really close the internet, whether it’s censoring information or trying to get information on users, and in this case there was a transnational attack to try to obtain information.”

Rafal Rohozinski, a cyber-security expert who helped uncover Chinese eavesdropping on Skype, said that Google and the Chinese government were headed for a showdown that could fundamentally alter the web’s development. It would fragment the global internet if the country decides to block Google from indexing websites within China, he said.

Get alerts on US & Canadian companies when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article