WASHINGTON — The U.S. will issue a formal protest to the Chinese government demanding an explanation for the cyberattack on Google Inc. that the company says originated from China.
"We will be issuing a formal demarche in Beijing," likely early next week, to express U.S. unease about the incident, State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said Friday. A demarche is a diplomatic protest.
Google said Jan. 11 it would stop censoring results on its search engine in China, as required by that country's government, because of "highly sophisticated" attacks on its Web site and the e-mail accounts of Chinese rights activists.
Mountain View, Calif.-based Google said the attacks included theft of its intellectual property and targeted at least 20 other companies in technology, finance and chemicals. Google, owner of the world's most popular Internet search engine, said it may end its operations in China.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington couldn't be reached for comment on the planned U.S. protest. China's Ministry of Commerce accused the U.S. of "backsliding" toward protectionism and said companies must comply with Chinese laws.
An exit by Google would leave China without a foreign company operating independently to serve more than 330 million Web users. Local operator Baidu Inc., based in Beijing, accounted for 58.4 percent of the country's search engine market last quarter, compared with Google's 35.6 percent, according to researcher Analysys International.
The U.S. decision to lodge a formal diplomatic protest underscores the seriousness of the issue, analysts said.
The protest "shows that this issue is not simply viewed in Washington as a commercial dispute between a U.S. company and the government of the People's Republic of China, but as a serious foreign policy issue for the United States," said Thomas Christensen, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for China policy during the George W. Bush administration.
Christensen, now director of the Princeton-Harvard China and the World program at Princeton University, said such protests "do matter and they are taken seriously. They are an official expression of a government's position on an issue."
Douglas Paal, a China expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace here, said, "This is just another irritant in what will be a year of irritants."
David Shear, deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, met with the Chinese Embassy's deputy chief of mission in Washington on Jan. 14 to express concern. Shear didn't receive answers to his questions, according to a U.S. official who requested anonymity.
Google briefed the Obama administration before it took action. Representatives of the company spoke with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about the matter last week and had discussions with Obama's national security advisers, according to administration officials.
Google didn't seek U.S. government help and administration officials didn't encourage or argue against proceeding, said the aides, speaking on condition of anonymity.