Google threatens withdrawal from China

Google has announced on its blog that it's considering pulling out of the Chinese market, following a cyber-attack from the country. Google says it has evidence that in mid-December hackers attempted to access the Gmail accounts of human rights activists. While the attack was ultimately unsuccessful, Google says that the evidence it has collected "goes to the heart of a much bigger global debate about freedom of speech".

The search engine operates a Google.cn website but the results for some topics, like Tiananmen Square, are heavily censored. Google, whose informal corporate motto is "Don't be evil", has come under criticism for this censorship in the past, but says that it believed 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".

However, as a direct result of the cyber-attack, which also hit at least twenty other large companies, Google says that it's now rethinking its Chinese strategy. The company says that it is "no longer willing" to censor Google.cn results, and that it will begin discussions with the Chinese government immediately as to operating an unfiltered search engine within the law.

If the Chinese government says no, Google says that it's fully prepared to shut down Google.cn and potentially its offices in the country - a decision that the company says has been "incredibly hard" and "will have far-reaching consequences".

Google doesn't enjoy a monopoly in China, unlike in the US and Europe. It competes with the Chinese-owned Baidu, which holds approximately 77% of the market to Google's 17%. However, the move is still a considerable one - it'll cause immense friction between China and the USA, and the consequences could be felt far down the line if other Western companies begin to line up behind Google.

Some analysts have questioned whether Google should have agreed to the filtering in the first place - allegations of Chinese human rights abuse are hardly new - but most commenters have congratulated the company for making the "right" move instead of the most profitable one - a rare occurrence among companies the size of Google.

This is a breaking news story, and we'll issue updates to this piece as we get them, so stay tuned. In the meantime - is Google doing the right thing in taking a stand over human rights abuses, or is it shooting itself in the foot by pulling out of an increasingly lucrative world market? Perhaps you think it's all an elaborate strategy to withdraw from a losing battle with Baidu while saving face? Tell us what you think in the comments.

Update: Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State, has waded into the row like an angry teacher in a playground argument, shouting "hey, hey, hey - what's going on here?". She said that the US government had been ''briefed" by Google on the subject, and added: "We look to the Chinese government for an explanation". That explanation hasn't yet been forthcoming.