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Google’s official blog was updated with a controversial article last night, detailing recent hacks on their servers originating from chinese IPs.

“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.”

This is not a totally surprising development, but what is surprising is Google’s response. It appears they are seriously considering withdrawing from the chinese market, and have announced this publicly.

“We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.”

After years of buzz about China as an investment market, it appears that long-standing issues of net censorship and government interference in business matters are starting to have a impact on their reputation in the international community; this news from Google coming not long after the imprisonment of foreign Rio Tinto employees charged by the state with “industrial espionage”.

“We have taken the unusual step of sharing information about these attacks with a broad audience not just because of the security and human rights implications of what we have unearthed, but also because this information goes to the heart of a much bigger global debate about freedom of speech. “

China obviously don’t want people to read this blogspot article – searching baidu.com for “google.blogspot.com” results in a “Host Not available” error, and the user is locked out of further searches for a period of time.

The issue of search and internet censorship is a big one in China and this development can only heighten it. As search and browsing technology improves, it will be harder and harder for the Chinese government to control what people see online, without resorting to drastic measures such as a localised internet. China has it’s own online services, with very few western sites making much of an inroad into the market, even when successful in the rest of the world. They don’t rely on being able to access Twitter, Facebook or Google. I would not be surprised to see Chinese censorship becoming more severe over the next year, nor would I be surprised to see, with groups of politicallly motivated chinese hackers around, Western sites starting to block access to chinese IPs.