NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Google said Tuesday that it may leave China and shut down its strictly monitored site there, Google.cn, citing censorship rules and a targeted cyber attack on its network infrastructure.
In a blog post, senior vice president of corporate development and chief legal officer David Drummond said the search giant first detected the attack last month and thought it posed a security threat, adding that the company frequently faces cyber attacks of varying degrees.
But an investigation of the attack exposed evidence that showed the attackers' primary goal was to access Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists, Drummond said. While two accounts were hacked, the accessed information was limited to the date the account was created and subject lines, not the content of any emails.
"We have taken the unusual step of sharing information about these attacks with a broad audience not just because of the security and human rights implications of what we have unearthed, but also because this information goes to the heart of a much bigger global debate about freedom of speech," wrote Drummond in the post.
When Google (GOOG, Fortune 500) began its operation in China in 2006, it aimed to strike a balance between its stated goal of making the world's information widely available and the requirement that all Internet companies doing business in China adhere to government regulations regarding censorship.
But the attacks changed Google's stance about operating in the country.
"We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law. We recognize this may well mean having to shutdown Google.cn, and potentially or offices in China," he continued.
A Google spokeswoman said the company doesn't know the likelihood of reaching an agreement with the Chinese government to run an unfiltered site, but if the company ultimately closes Google.cn down, it will have an "immaterial impact" on the company's revenue.
Efforts by CNN to reach the Chinese Embassy in Washington Tuesday evening were not successful.
For the 20th anniversary of the massacre in Tiananmen Square last summer, Web sites across China were forced to shut down for a brief period of time surrounding June 4. For 8 days, Google.cn blocked all results that came up for Tiananmen Square.
Despite China's effort to control Web browsing, users in China have had access to an "unfiltered" Google.com. A Google spokeswoman Tuesday told CNNMoney.com that the company has received ongoing reports of instances when users can no longer access the uncensored site, most likely due to the government's actions.
Drummond also said the Google's investigation showed that at least twenty other large companies from a variety of industries were similarly targeted by the attack, and Google is working with relevant U.S. authorities and in the process of notifying those companies.
Unrelated to the particular attack, Drummond said they company has discovered that accounts of dozens of U.S.-, China- and Europe-based Gmail users who are Chinese human rights activists have been accessed by third parties most likely through Internet scams and malware.
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