China and Google Face Off Over Censorship, Cyber Attacks

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.—A digital Cold War is percolating between Google and China. Tuesday, the search giant posted a rather unexpected post to its official blog stating its intention to reshape its relationship with the communist nation, or else.

“We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on,” wrote Corporate Development and Chief Legal Officer David Drummond, “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.”

The ultimatum comes after a series of attempts to hack Google’s servers and steal sensitive information.

“Like many other well-known organizations, we face cyber attacks of varying degrees on a regular basis,” wrote Drummond. “In mid-December, we detected a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google. However, it soon became clear that what at first appeared to be solely a security incident—albeit a significant one—was something quite different.

“First, this attack was not just on Google. As part of our investigation we have discovered that at least twenty other large companies from a wide range of businesses—including the Internet, finance, technology, media and chemical sectors—have been similarly targeted. We are currently in the process of notifying those companies, and we are also working with the relevant U.S. authorities.

“Second, we have evidence to suggest that a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. Based on our investigation to date we believe their attack did not achieve that objective. 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.

“Third, as part of this investigation but independent of the attack on Google, we have discovered that the accounts of dozens of U.S.-, China- and Europe-based Gmail users who are advocates of human rights in China appear to have been routinely accessed by third parties. These accounts have not been accessed through any security breach at Google, but most likely via phishing scams or malware placed on the users' computers.”

According to Reuters, “On Friday, a Chinese commerce ministry spokesman, Yao Jian, said there were ways to solve the Google dispute but did not elaborate. Some analysts have suggested Google could accept a solution where it lifts self-censorship from but allows Beijing to censor through its own ‘firewall’ of blocking technology.”

The article goes on to say, however, that such a compromise is unlikely given Yao’s further comment that all foreign companies, including Google, must obey the country's laws.

Meanwhile, the United States is preparing to issue a formal complaint over the cyber attacks, and according to the Wall Street Journal, will seek an investigation by the Chinese into Google's allegations that hackers from their country compromised its network.

"We want to know what they plan to do about it," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, who said the department plans to send the complaint Monday. Thus far, at least three other American companies—Yahoo, Adobe Systems and Juniper Networks—have publicly acknowledged they also were victims of China-based cyber attacks.