Google risks having its online services blocked in China as it defies local authorities by ending censorship of results on its Chinese search engine, analysts said.
Google has long removed sensitive search results from its Chinese search engine at Google.cn, but said on Tuesday it plans to end the censorship and may ultimately shut down the company's China offices.
However, China is highly unlikely to allow Google to run an uncensored version of the search engine, according to observers.
"China may throw Google out, and it will undoubtedly block Google.cn," said Danny O'Brien, an international coordinator at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group.
There is also a concern that all Google services could be blocked in China if the company violates Chinese regulations by stopping its censorship of search results, said Shaun Rein, managing director of China Market Research Group in Shanghai. Offerings like Gmail, Google Docs and Google hosting for businesses all have users in China and could be affected by a move to block the search giant's services.
Chinese government censors constantly patrol the internet for content deemed undesirable, including pornography and discussion of sensitive topics like corruption. They also block access across the country to popular US web sites including YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. Google is just one of a group of search engines including Microsoft's Bing and Yahoo China that remove certain results from their search engines targeted at the country.
Some observers have praised Google's move to end its censorship. "It's a hard decision when you operate in China to publicly criticise the Chinese government," said Leslie Harris, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, an advocacy group.
But Google has been losing market share to domestic rival Baidu.com in China and may just be "looking for an excuse to get out," said Rein.
"I don't think human rights is the big issue here," said Rein. "If Google were making money, would they do it this way?"
It was cold and quiet outside of a Google office in northwest Beijing on Wednesday afternoon, but flowers had been laid on a Google sign on its lawn and passersby took photos of the building. A note reading 'Thank you, Google!' was attached to one of the flower bouquets.
"We worry that services like Gmail and Google Docs could be blocked," said Fu Guoli, a bystander who was taking pictures of the building with an iPhone. "This was surprising. ... The main thing is this will affect life and work."
Google.com, the company's main search engine, has long been available in China alongside Google.cn and does not censor search results like the Chinese version.
Google's announcement also said the company was hit by cyberattacks last month that originated in China and appeared largely aimed at accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. The attacks also caused the loss of Google intellectual property, the company said.
Other US internet companies are unlikely to follow Google's lead in China, though Google's move does create pressure for its competitors to follow suit, said Greg Sterling, an analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence.
Microsoft didn't respond to a request for comment about any planned changes in China.
One analyst said China is unlikely to block other Google services even if it blocks Google.cn. "If they do that they will face more international pressure," said Elinor Leung, an analyst at CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets. But the government is certain to block an uncensored version of Google.cn since allowing Google to run such a service could mean allowing other search engines to unblock results as well, said Leung.
Negative press led largely by China's state-run media has hit Google in the last year. The company had a row with the Chinese government over pornographic search results last year that spiraled until Google.com and other Google services were briefly blocked in the country. Local news websites have created dedicated sections about Google's book scanning project and allegations that it infringes the rights of local authors.
"Google has a tough time in dealing with the regulations [in China]," said Leung.
(Nancy Gohring in Seattle and Stephen Lawson and Robert McMillan in San Francisco contributed to this story.)