Four years ago, the giant Internet search company Google entered the Chinese market after agreeing to the Beijing government's requirement that it deliver censored results to searches on Google.cn.
This week, the California-based company reversed course, after announcing that its computers had been hacked and that both corporate information and email accounts of human rights activists had been compromised.
Google spokeswoman Jessica Powell said the attacks on the company's servers came from China. "And as a result," she said, "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."
Google did not specifically accuse the Chinese government of the hacking incident, but that was the universal conclusion drawn from the company's vaguely worded statement.
When Google agreed to censorship as a condition for opening its Chinese website in 2006, the company received a lot of criticism. At least one of the critics, Danny O'Brien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says this time, Google did the right thing.
"And I speak as someone who regularly criticizes Google and still does, as [a representative of] a civil rights organization. But in this case it sounds like they really did the right thing. They wanted to protect their users' privacy, and they decided that sacrificing their users' ability to access all of the Internet was a price that they weren't willing to pay."
Some commentators have suggested that Google may be acting on principle, while also noting that the U.S.-based firm has made little headway against its main Chinese competitor, Baidu. O'Brien says Google is sacrificing a lot to pull out of the huge and expanding Chinese market.
"But at the same time, if Google got the reputation as a company that was willing to just lay down for any government's attempts to obtain personal information, that would do severe damage both to their reputation among individual users and their increasing corporate customers."
Even though both Google and Baidu censored their results in China, the two were not equivalent, says Rebecca MacKinnon, former CNN bureau chief in Beijing and now a fellow with the Open Society Institute.
"Every time I've tested Google.cn with sensitive political terms, I always find that Google.cn provides a greater variety of results and a bit more edgy information than Baidu, which censors much more thoroughly."
MacKinnon says reaction to the Google announcement by Chinese Internet users varies. "There are some Chinese Internet users, particularly the more tech-savvy ones, who are actually cheering this move because they're very upset about the increasing censorship over the past year. And they think it's good that an international company like Google would stand up and say 'We're not going to take this anymore. This is wrong.'"
On the other hand, MacKinnon says other Chinese users are concerned that Google's retreat from the market will result in China's Internet being more closed and less connected with the outside world.
Meanwhile, Danny O'Brien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation speculates that Google may direct some of its vast reservoir of technical expertise to helping Chinese Internet users circumvent official restrictions.
"What we might well see here is a change in strategy by Google's undoubtedly very smart techies," he suggested. "Up until now they've been devoting their work to better filter the Chinese Internet. Now I suspect they'll be spending their time working out how to provide their users with the ability to circumvent the Great Firewall of China."
On Friday, China's official Internet Network Information Center reported that the number of Internet users in the country jumped by about 30 percent last year. With 384 million users, China is the world's largest Internet community.