Google has been praised for refusing to keep facilitating censorship of its Chinese services. But its faceoff with Chinese authorities continues, as EU officials express concern and China defends its position.
Chinese fans of Google are begging it to stay amid threats of a pullout
EU Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes cited recently revealed cyber-attacks on Google services in China as proof of the importance of preserving "the open and neutral character of the net."
Google announced on Tuesday that it would no longer comply with Chinese government requirements that they censor search results.
It has threatened to abandon its operations in the country entirely over the discovery of cyber-attacks launched from China and aimed at political activists and foreign businesses.
Google's threat to pull out followed a China-based cyber-attack aimed at human rights activists and foreign businesses using Google's Gmail e-mail service. Google said the accounts were “routinely accessed” through malicious software that had been unwittingly installed on users' computers. Internet security experts speculate that what Google called a "highly sophisticated" series of attacks might have links to government or political groups.
"If proven, this case would be particularly worrying as an example of targeting of human rights activists in China and elsewhere in the world," Kroes told members of the European parliament on Thursday, during a hearing to judge her suitability to become the commissioner for information technologies.
About 360 million in people use the Internet in China, more than anywhere else in the world
Censorship or "guiding opinions"?
China is defending its policy of widespread censorship of the Internet in the face of Google's threats to withdraw from the country and shut down 'google.cn', its Chinese web portal.
"Our country is at a crucial stage of reform and development, and this is a period of marked social conflicts," Wang Chen, head of the central government's information office, said during an interview posted on the office's website. "Properly guiding internet opinion is a major measure for protecting internet information security."
Although Google did not accuse the Chinese government of direct involvement in the attack, industry analyst Paul Craig told news agency AFP that it could be a “government-sponsored attack against individuals, or a commercially-sponsored attack.”
“Typically the online criminal hacker is attempting to steal intellectual property, or financial information. This does not seem to be the motive in this case,” said Craig, a leading security consultant for Security-Assessment.com, based in New Zealand.
The "Great Firewall of China"
Chinese censors use two main methods of restricting access to web content. One is to block the IP addresses of websites they find problematic, including those of human rights organizations like Amnesty International, or You Tube. Users in China who try to access the sites are greeted with an error message, as though the site never existed.
Until recently, Google had cooperated with Chinese authorities' desire for censorship
Some users manage to get around the so-called "Great Firewall of China" through proxy servers, which route the information through an offsite server and in doing so assign the site a different IP address. But Chinese authorities often manage to block known hosts of proxy servers, meaning the holes allowing a view of the wider world web grow ever smaller.
The second form of internet censorship is more obvious - it makes the networks in China run much more slowly than in other parts of the world. With the help of a filter, authorities can suppress or hide content they deem objectionable - such as pornography, foreign or independent media, or content associated with "controversial" topics such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising - so that it is not accessible through other websites or search engines. Foreign businesses are required to install such filters before being allowed to operate in China.
Until Tuesday, Google had been among those that complied.
But Google cannot take the decision to abandon China lightly. The company may not be able to afford the cost of giving up the world's largest online market entirely. Google has a 30 percent market share of China's 360 million Internet users, but Chinese rival Baidu controls about 60 percent of that market.
Editor: Michael Lawton