Internet giant Google says it is ready to leave China, which has the world's biggest number of Internet users, after hackers based in China accessed human rights activists' e-mail account information.
Google's China office remained open for business, Wednesday, but the American company has gotten into a dispute with China that could end in Google's departure from the country.
Google's Asia spokeswoman, Jessica Powell, Wednesday said her company recently uncovered cyber attacks on the e-mail accounts of human rights activists - in the United States and in Europe - who were using Google's gmail service.
"Both of these security attacks seem to have emanated from China and, as a result and in combination with the environment in China, we've decided to review the feasibility of our business operations there and have decided that in good conscience, we really cannot continue to operate a filtered search engine in China," she said.
Google has said it is concerned about the growing instance of official Chinese efforts to further limit free speech on the Web. Powell said the company is now reviewing its China operations.
"We haven't made any changes, right now," she said. "We are still operating google.cn in compliance with local law and will be talking with the government over the coming weeks as to how, if at all, we could operate a non-filtered search engine within China."
In a statement issued Tuesday, the company acknowledged it may have to close down its operations in China, if no resolution can be reached.
Internet activists brought flowers to Google's offices in Beijing. Some objected to government censorship of the Internet, while others urged patience and said they believe Internet censorship in China will not end overnight.
Human Rights Watch's Sophie Richardson called Google's move "extraordinary and commendable."
"I don't think that this is just a question of what Google chooses to do for its own corporate profile or its own clients and users. It's also about saying to people inside countries like China, 'We're on your side and we've got your backs. You're not alone.' And, that is where Google and the others ought to have been all-along on this," she said.
Richardson says one of the most troubling things about the latest case is that China-based hackers were able to access accounts in other countries. Google says hackers targeted at least 20 other large companies.
China has more than 350 million Internet users.
Chinese search engine Baidu commands a 60 percent share of the Chinese Internet search market, versus Google's 30 percent. The attack on Google was disclosed a day after Baidu was hacked briefly by a group calling itself the "Iranian Cyber Army."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says the Google case raises "very serious concerns and questions" and says Washington is seeking answers from the Chinese government. Clinton met last week with the top leaders from U.S.-based Internet and computer companies. She is set to announce next week a new policy that focuses on Internet freedom around the world.
Chinese authorities did not immediately respond to requests for comment.