According to information just released by Google, its Chinese web portal, Google.cn, may be biting the dust shortly.

In the wake of a string of cyber attacks, certain surveillance activities and long-standing censorship policies, Google SVP David Drummond writes,
"We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn [...] We should review the feasibility of our business operations in China."

UPDATED: A Google spokesperson informs us that the relevant authorities in the U.S. government have been notified of the company's actions.

Last month, Google noticed a "highly sophisticated and targeted attack" on their infrastructure that allowed for the theft of Google IP. The attack came from China and targeted at least 20 other major corporations involved in technology, finance, media and chemicals.

Google believes the main reason for the attacks was to access Gmail accounts of advocates of human rights for Chinese people. Dozens of accounts with users based in the U.S., Europe and China have been accessed to varying degrees; Google denies any security breach on their part, stating that malware or phishing might have caused the accounts to be compromised.

Although Google would not normally share information of this nature with a global audience, their team has decided to do so now because the attacks and account surveillance that have been uncovered speak to issues of security, human rights and free speech.

"We launched Google.cn in January 2006," wrote Drummond, "in the belief that the benefits of increased access to information for people in China and a more open Internet outweighed our discomfort in agreeing to censor some results. At the time we made clear that 'we will carefully monitor conditions in China, including new laws and other restrictions on our services. If we determine that we are unable to achieve the objectives outlined we will not hesitate to reconsider our approach to China.'"

Drummond also references China's attempts in 2009 to curtail and censor free expression on the Web, which we have covered in depth and which we listed as one of last year's greatest failures.

Google execs, who have decided that serving censored search results is no longer an option, will spend several weeks talking with the Chinese government about whether or not they could run an unfiltered search engine in that country. If the two entities are unable to reach an agreement, it is likely that Google.cn will shut down, as will Google's offices in China.

What Took So Long?

We've long been critical of major tech companies that, through acts of omission or under the auspices of compliance with foreign governments, do harm to human rights, privacy and free speech.

In a post from October 2008, our own Marshall Kirkpatrick questioned whether Google, Yahoo!, YouTube or any of the larger web companies operating internationally were equipped to handle the moral and ethical responsibilities of their expansion overseas into troubled territories. He reminded us of several affronts to human rights for which these companies were responsible, then noted, "It's hard, because their fundamental drive is to monetize these huge markets."

Curt Hopkins, founder of the Commmittee to Protect Bloggers, responded with a similar point of view, saying, "Given that not just Google but every single other American tech company has shat themselves to get at the mythological Chinese market, this is way too long in coming.

"What took so long? Did they finally realize that they are never going to make any money as things currently are so they thought they'd get some PR? This is great news, but you still have to ask: Who benefits from this? And how do they benefit? I hate to be cynical, but the best we can hope for is that Google says, 'This isn't going anywhere for us, and it's so unpleasant.'... If I was in Google's shoes, I would never stop talking about how wonderful we were for doing this."

Hopkins's cohort Andrew Ford Lyons has posted a statement that Google ought to immediately remove filters from search results on Google.cn and promote uncensored, unmonitored web access "by channeling some of their incredibly smart staff's efforts toward projects that protect privacy in China and help more Web surfers there quickly and safely bypass firewalls."

We will continue to update you on the situation as we receive more information. In the meantime, please let us know your thoughts in the comments.