Google has said it may shut down its China operations in protest against government censorship of its search results.
The announcement by the internet search giant, which represents a major shift in policy, follows a recent hacking incident that appeared to target the accounts of activists using its electronic mail system, Gmail.
Google has previously said it would obey Chinese internet laws requiring politically and socially sensitive issues to be blocked from search results, but now says that policy will be dropped.
In a statement on Tuesday Google officials said they planned to talk to the Chinese government about finding a way it can still provide unfiltered search results in the country, failing which it will leave China four years after opening an office there.
"It's impossible to imagine China backing down in any way"
Ogilvy public relations, Hong Kong
"The decision to review our business operations in China has been incredibly hard, and we know that it will have potentially far-reaching consequences," David Drummond, Google's top lawyer, wrote in a blog posting on Tuesday.
Thomas Crampton, an expert on digital media with Ogilvy public relations based in Hong Kong, said one had to wonder if Google's threats to leave China would have any sway over Chinese policy.
"It's impossible to imagine China backing down in any way," he told Al Jazeera.
"From the point of view of the Chinese government, there are much more important things than even a high-profile company such as Google."
Crampton noted that Chinese officials had nevertheless urged internet portals in the country to play down the news of Google's potential departure.
Google's announcement has though been welcomed by free-speech and human rights groups who hope that the move will spur other companies to take a similar stand.
|Analysts project Google's China revenue to total $600m this year [Reuters]
"Google has taken a bold and difficult step for internet freedom in support of fundamental human rights," Leslie Harris, the president of the Centre for Democracy & Technology, a civil-liberties group in Washington, told the Associated Press.
"No company should be forced to operate under government threat to its core values or to the rights and safety of its users."
Danny O'Brien, the international outreach co-ordinator at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an internet-rights group in San Francisco, told the Associated Press that it was "an incredibly significant move".
"This changes the game because the question won't be 'How can we work in China?' but 'How can we create services that Chinese people can use, from outside of China?'"
Google's changed stance on China was triggered by a sophisticated computer attack recently orchestrated from within the country, targeting the company and at least 20 others from the internet, financial services, technology, media and chemical industries.
'Don't be evil'
Google's previous pledge to obey Chinese censorship laws had outraged free-speech advocates and even some shareholders, who argued Google's co-operation with China violated the company's "don't be evil" motto.
The California-based company discussed the attacks with the US state department prior to its announcement.
Google said its Chinese operations accounted for an "immaterial" amount of its roughly $22bn in annual revenue, but some analysts say leaving the country could crimp its growth.
The internet audience in China has soared from 10 million to nearly 340 million in the past decade and analysts have forecast Google's China revenue will total about $600 million this year.
As part of its investigation into the cyber attack, the company said it stumbled onto another more successful scam, in which dozens of activists in the US, Europe and China fighting the Chinese government's policies fell prey to ruses commonly known as "phishing" or malware.
Matt Furman, a Google spokesman, declined to say whether the company suspected the involvement of the Chinese government in the attacks.
"Phishing" involves malicious emails urging the recipients to open an attachment or visit a link that they're duped into believing comes from a friend or legitimate company.
Clicking on such a link installs malware, or malicious software, on to computers, which can be used as a surveillance tool to steal passwords and unlock email accounts.