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Google threatens to leave China after attacks on activists' e-mail

A Google executive said, " "We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down and potentially our offices in China."
A Google executive said, " "We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down and potentially our offices in China." (AP)

Based on its investigation to date, Google said, it does not believe the cyberattack on its accounts succeeded. "Only two Gmail accounts appear to have been accessed, and that activity was limited to account information (such as the date the account was created) and subject line, rather than the content of emails themselves," the company said in a blog posting.

Google has also been embroiled recently in a dispute over the copyrights of Chinese authors whose works it had published in its online library Google Books. Chinese writers have accused it of copyright infringement. The company apologized to Chinese writers this week.

Privacy advocates applauded Google's move to disclose the cyberattacks and reverse its stand on censorship of its China search engine results.

"Google has taken a bold and difficult step for Internet freedom in support of fundamental human rights," said Leslie Harris, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology. "No company should be forced to operate under government threat to its core values or to the rights and safety of its users."

In China, reaction on the Web was critical of both the Chinese government and Google.

One blogger, identified only as "Crossing the river with eyes closed," said, "They'd better cut the cable under the sea so that they don't have to worry at all." The late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping famously said that reform was like crossing a river one stone at a time.

Others worried that the potential loss of access to Google would make it harder to obtain technical information.

"Of course, as a business they have the right to make this decision," Ran Yunfei, a dissident writer based in Sichuan province, said on Twitter, which is blocked in China but which many Chinese reach through proxies. But, he added, even censored, Google is "much better than Baidu," a popular Chinese-owned search engine.

In a phone interview, he said Google should "not abandon" China but rather apply pressure through the World Trade Organization and U.S. government.

Google officials said the company found that the Gmail accounts of dozens of China human rights advocates in the United States, China and Europe "appear to have been routinely accessed by third parties." The hacking most likely occurred through phishing scams -- luring users to download malicious software by opening innocent-looking e-mails -- or malware placed on users' computers, rather than by breaking into Google's corporate infrastructure, the company said.

The implications for U.S. businesses in general loom large.

"Google is an extreme example, but this action is consistent with the sentiment among many foreign companies that doing business in China is increasingly difficult as the country becomes more wealthy and powerful," said James McGregor, senior counselor for Apco Worldwide in China.

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