google chinaGoogle said today it might pull out of China because it found that the email accounts of human rights activists using Google’s Gmail service had been breached.

The company detected a “highly sophisticated and targeted attack” on its corporate infrastructure, with the probes coming from China starting in mid-December, Google said in a blog post. The investigation found that the attackers were accessing the Gmail accounts of activists. The company said it is no longer willing to continue censoring the results on its Chinese search engine, as required by the Chinese government. That could prompt the government to kick Google out of the country.

That would be a reversal of policy for Google, which agreed to censor search results when it created a version of its search engine for China. Of course, it would still be possible for Chinese citizens to reach Google. They can do so now through web sites that hide their identities and let them roam out on the web without being discovered. Sites such Hot Spot Shield’s Anchor Free offer this service.

It is an interesting quandary. The Chinese market is growing fast and will be important to search engine companies, but Google’s motto is “don’t be evil.” Yahoo previously came under fire for giving the Chinese government the account information of a Chinese journalist who was convicted of violating state secrecy laws.

Google said in its post that at least 20 other large companies had been attacked as well. So far, just two Gmail accounts had been accessed by attacks against Google directly. But dozens of activists have had their Gmail accounts breached in phishing or malware attacks, where individuals may have clicked on links that serve as bait for malware.

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