Google Gets U.S. Backing and Evidence China May Be Behind the Attack

The U.S. said Friday it will file a formal complaint against China next week, as new details emerged about the cyber-attack that prompted Google (GOOG) to threaten to quit the world's largest country. The White House offered its support for Google's position, and the State Department said it would demand an explanation from China about the attack that targeted U.S. companies and Chinese human rights workers. And U.S. lawmakers are urging high-tech companies to join Google in reassessing their business operations in China.The furor over the attack, which targeted over 30 U.S. companies, was primed to grow Friday after researchers identified the command-and-control servers behind the attack -- and pointed the finger squarely at the Chinese government. Cyber-security experts at Verisign iDefense labs said their analysis showed that "the attack is the work of actors operating on behalf of or in the direct employ of official intelligence entities of the People's Republic of China."

U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman said Friday that China-based attacks on U.S. government computers have been "ongoing for a long time."

Microsoft (MSFT) wound up getting sorely embarrassed after CEO Steve Ballmer said the company would remain in China and abide by its censorship -- just hours before a cyber-security firm said that a previously unknown vulnerability in the company's Internet Explorer browser was a key "vector" exploited during the attack.

On Tuesday, Google revealed it had been the victim of the massive attack as Chinese rights activists' Gmail accounts were hacked. The search giant said it would no longer censor its Chinese search engine and was prepared to quit the country altogether.

In response, China defiantly declared its Internet "open" -- a laughable claim -- and said Internet companies operating in China must follow the law, which calls for strictly censoring information the government doesn't like. "Chinese law proscribes any form of hacking activity," a Chinese official added.

Brin's Role

It's becoming clear that Google thinks the Chinese government was behind the attack as well, although the company has been loath to say as much publicly. And although some pundits have argued that Google's move was strictly commercial, new details emerged about the company's decision-making process, and the key role played by co-founder Sergey Brin, a Russian immigrant who fled the Soviet Union with his family when he was a child.

Brin has always been somewhat leery of doing business in China, given the communist country'sabysmal human rights record and strict censorship of the Web. But he was convinced enough by CEO Eric Schmidt's argument that "some Google is better than no Google" to accept the path of "incrementalism," in which Google would accept the censorship, but work to gradually open China from within.

The revelation that Chinese hackers had targeted the Gmail accounts of human-right activists was simply too much for Brin, who insisted that Google stand up to China's communist rulers -- even if it means foregoing a major long-term business opportunity in the country.

On Friday, Chinese officials sought to contain the growing controversy. "China will still strictly adopt a policy of openness and offer a good investment environment," Commerce Ministry spokesman Yao Jian said. "We emphasize that foreign companies including Google should all follow international standards and respect local law and regulations and local culture and customs to shoulder social responsibility."

Moral and Economic Principles at Stake

In backing Google, the White House said certain countries like China shouldn't be allowed to receive a pass on human rights, just because they're important global economic players. On Thursday, the senior D.C.-based U.S. diplomat for China met with his Chinese counterpart looking for an explanation about the attacks and the role of the Chinese government.

"The incident raises questions about -- about both Internet freedom and the security of the Internet in China," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters.

Despite growing indications that the Chinese government was behind the attacks -- which targeted a 20-year-old Stanford student and Tibeten activist, among others -- the White House sought to tread lightly, fearing that an escalation in rhetoric could lead to a diplomatic crisis or trade war between the two countries.

National Economic Council Director Lawrence Summers said it was too early to assess the economic impact of the attacks, but told reporters that "as the transformation from an industrial economy to a knowledge economy goes on, the free flow of information becomes more central, not just as a political issue, but as an economic issue." Summers added: "So it seems to me that the principles that Google is trying to uphold are not just important in a moral and human rights framework but are also of very considerable economic importance."

Lawmakers Urge Other Tech Companies to Follow Google

While the White House's support for Google was low-key, if firm, some lawmakers on Capitol Hill showed no such reticence and unloaded on China.

"I urge others in the business community who have found themselves victim of China's spying and flagrant intellectual property violations . . . to join Google and speak out and take action," Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) said at a press conference on Thursday. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also called on other tech companies to follow Google's example.

New Jersey Rep. Chris Smith, the senior Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he hoped Google's move would help ensure that a controversial measure aimed at dissuading U.S. technology companies from cooperating with repressive foreign governments would come to the house floor for a vote.

"Google has brought the spotlight right back," Smith said. "When they say enough is enough, that ought to be a game-changer on Capitol Hill."
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