This is already a remarkable story, and it is sure to have a major impact on U.S.-China relations as it develops.
Google has announced that it was hacked. While not blaming the Chinese government, Google says it traced the attacks back to China and that they resulted in the loss of Google’s intellectual property and involved 30 other companies.
More ominously, the attacks appear to have targeted human rights activists in China, Europe, and the United States.
As a result, Google says it will stop censoring search results in China. And although the announcement says that Google will be discussing with the local authorities how it can do that under China law, it looks like if you search for Tiananmen Square from google.cn now, you will see photos of “Tank Man”, the brave individual who held up a column of tanks after the June 4th massacre (hat tip to the blogger Michael Anti). Before, you would have just seen the typical tourist photos of the square with no reference to the demonstrations.
Google also says that it is considering withdrawing from the Chinese market. It will be interesting to see how this decision plays out in China (and in the United States). Some on twitter are talking about bringing flowers to Google’s offices in Haidian, others were arguing that Google was pulling out because it was losing market share to the Chinese search company Baidu. (The twitter conversations, #googlecn is here; you can read a U.S.-based argument against seeing this as a cynical business decision here).
I am sure there is going to be much more to say about this over the next days, but here are two quick thoughts. First, with the announced arms sales to Taiwan, China’s test of land-based missile defense system and the up-coming visit of the Dalai Lama, American officials were already expecting that the bilateral relationship was entering a turbulent stage. Things just got a whole lot bumpier. And we still have Secretary Clinton’s “major address” on Internet freedom scheduled for January 21 to look forward to. [Update: Secretary Clinton has expressed the United States' concern: " "We look to the Chinese government for an explanation. The ability to operate with confidence in cyberspace is critical in a modern society and economy."]
Second, Google did an interesting thing in its announcement. It linked the cyber attacks and Chinese efforts to limit the freedom of the Internet. As Nart Villeneuve notes, the Great Firewall is built not just on filtering and blocking access, but also surveillance and attacks. It will be interesting if Secretary Clinton makes the same connection in her speech. [Update: Reuters is reporting that Google let the State Department know of its decision before the announcement was made. Comments from State Department officials suggest that this has been under discussion for a while and that the speech is being/was crafted with Google in mind.]