Google said Tuesday that it may pull out of China because of a sophisticated computer network attack originating there and targeting its e-mail service.
The company said it had evidence to suggest that "a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists." The attack was discovered in December.
Based on Google's investigation to date, the company said, it does not believe the cyberattack 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 e-mails themselves," the company said in a blog posting.
But David Drummond, Google senior vice president and chief legal officer, added that the attacks "have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China."
Google has further decided that it is no longer willing to continue censoring its search results on Chinese Google sites, Drummond said, and over the next few weeks it will discuss with the Beijing government how it may operate "an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all," he said.
"We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn and potentially our offices in China," he said.
Privacy advocates applauded Google's move to disclose the attack and reverse its stand on censorship.
"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 & Technology. "No company should be forced to operate under government threat to its core values or to the rights and safety of its users. We support Google for being willing to engage in this very difficult process."
At least 20 other large companies have been similarly targeted with such attacks, Google said. The firms' industries range from finance and technology to media and chemicals.