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Google to end China censorship after e-mail breach

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By MICHAEL LIEDTKE
The Associated Press
Tuesday, January 12, 2010; 11:49 PM

SAN FRANCISCO -- Google Inc. will stop censoring its search results in China and may pull out of the country completely after discovering that computer hackers had tricked human-rights activists into exposing their e-mail accounts to outsiders.

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The change of heart announced Tuesday heralds a major shift for the Internet's search leader, which has repeatedly said it will obey Chinese laws requiring some politically and socially sensitive issues to be blocked from search results available in other countries. The acquiescence had outraged free-speech advocates and even some shareholders, who argued Google's cooperation with China violated the company's "don't be evil" motto.

The criticism had started to sway Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who openly expressed his misgivings about the company's presence in China.

But the tipping point didn't come until Google recently uncovered hacking attacks launched from within China. The apparent goals: breaking into the computers of at least 20 major U.S. companies and gathering personal information about dozens of human rights activists trying to shine a light on China's alleged abuses.

Google spokesman Matt Furman declined to say whether the company suspects the Chinese government may have had a hand in the attacks.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the Google allegations "raise very serious concerns and questions" and the U.S. is seeking an explanation from the Chinese government.

Google officials also plan to talk to the Chinese government to determine if there is a way the company can still provide unfiltered search results in the country. If an agreement can't be worked out, Google is prepared to leave China four years after creating a search engine bearing China's Web suffix, ".cn" to put itself in a better position to profit from the world's most populous country.

"The decision to review our business operations in China has been incredibly hard, and we know that it will have potentially far-reaching consequences," David Drummond, Google's top lawyer, wrote in a Tuesday blog posting.

A spokesman for the Chinese consulate in San Francisco had no immediate comment.

Abandoning China wouldn't put a big dent in Google's earnings, although it could crimp the company's growth as the country's Internet usage continues to rise. China's Internet audience already has soared from 10 million to nearly 340 million in the past decade.

Google, based in Mountain View, said its Chinese operations account for an "immaterial" amount of its roughly $22 billion in annual revenue. J.P. Morgan analyst Imran Khan had been expecting Google's China revenue to total about $600 million this year.

Although Google's search engine is the most popular worldwide, it's a distant second in China, where the homegrown Baidu.com processes more than 60 percent of all requests.


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