— The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own —
By Wei Gu
HONG KONG (Reuters Breakingviews) - Google may have quit China, but the search giant’s claim of Chinese hacking into Gmail accounts suggests it may not have escaped Beijing’s tentacles. The story may fizzle if Google can’t back up the disputed claims. But it still may make the likes of Facebook reluctant to make compromises to be allowed into the world’s largest Internet market.
China’s Foreign Ministry denied Google’s claims that hackers from China have tried to crack email accounts of users including senior U.S. government officials, Chinese activists and journalists. The revelation comes a year after Google disclosed a cyber attack on its systems that it said it traced to China. The U.S. company partially pulled out of China in 2010 after a tussle with the government over censorship, and directed traffic to its Chinese site to its Hong Kong domain. But users in China complain they can’t even access Google’s Hong Kong site anymore, indicating further deterioration in the relationship.
The hacking news may die down unless governments are willing to back Google’s claim. The White House said it was investigating this but didn’t believe U.S. government email accounts were breached. South Korea’s government said the president’s office had not been affected, adding they did not use Gmails.
But equally, unless Google’s claims can be shown to be groundless, other Western companies will probably be more wary about the Chinese market. Facebook is currently banned by Chinese authorities, but it is understood to be looking for ways to enter the market. Beijing wants the social networking site to move some computer servers into the country, according to a person close to the matter. That could make it easier for hackers to access information and for its services to be censored — both of which would bring reputational damage.
By speaking up, Google has indicated it is unlikely to return to China anytime soon. The latest incident may make Facebook, Twitter and YouTube less eager to crack the Chinese market too.
— China’s Foreign Ministry on June 2 said it “cannot accept” Google’s accusations that hackers probably based in China tried to break into hundreds of Google mail accounts.
— Google Inc said on June 1 on its official blog that unknown perpetrators, who appeared to originate from the city of Jinan in Shandong province, recently tried to crack and monitor email accounts of hundreds of users, including senior U.S. government officials, Chinese activists and journalists, by stealing passwords. Google said it detected and “disrupted” their campaign.
— The White House said it was investigating reports that hackers tried to hack into Google email accounts but did not believe U.S. government email accounts were breached in the attack.
-- Google official blog: googleblog.blogspot.com/
Editing by Hugo Dixon and David Evans