Internet giant Google has said it may end its operations in China following a “sophisticated and targeted” cyber attack originating from the country.
The company did not accuse the Chinese government directly, but said it was no longer willing to censor its Chinese search engine – google.cn.
This could result in closing the site, and its Chinese offices, Google said.
The top executive of its Chinese rival Baidu called the move “hypocritical” and financially motivated.
Google said the e-mail accounts of Chinese human rights activists were the primary target of the attack, which occurred in December.
The search engine has now said it will hold talks with the government in the coming weeks to look at operating an unfiltered search engine within the law in the country, though no changes to filtering had yet been made.
Google launched google.cn in 2006, agreeing to some censorship of the search results, as required by the Chinese government.
It currently holds around a third of the Chinese search market, far behind Baidu with more than 60%.
In a blog post announcing its decision, Google’s chief legal officer David Drummond said: “A primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.”
Some Google shareholders… will see this as a commercial example of cutting off your nose to spite your face
Robert Peston, BBC business editor
The company said its investigation into the attack found two accounts of its online mail service – Gmail – appeared to have been accessed.
However, the attack was limited to accessing account information such as the date the account was created and subject line, rather than e-mail content, it said.
It said it had also discovered that the accounts of dozens of US, China and Europe-based Gmail users, who are “advocates of human rights in China”, appeared to have been “routinely accessed by third parties”.
It said these accounts had not been accessed through any security breach at Google, but “most likely via phishing scams or malware placed on users’ computers”.
At least 20 other large companies from a wide range of businesses were similarly targeted, it added.
‘Makes me sick’
In a blog, the chief architect of Baidu said Google’s decision to quit was for financial reasons, rather than a human rights issue, as Google had failed to dominate the Chinese search market.
“What Google said makes me sick,” he said. “If you are to quit for the sake of financial interest, then just say it.”
Chris Hogg, BBC News, Shanghai