THIS week's news that Google may be withdrawing its operations in China raises important issues of freedom of information, human rights and the extent to which a dictatorial regime can be persuaded to change its ways over time. The most difficult decision made by Google in its decade of exponential growth was to start operations in China in 2006. With its mission statement “don't be evil” Google had to face criticism that in reality it was ready to put commercial opportunity before principle since the Chinese government's conditions for operating in its vast country was that Google would agree not to make available information on certain subjects -- Tibet, the Dalai Lama and Tiananmen Square, for instance. Google reluctantly agreed to this self-censorship in the wider interest of spreading knowledge and made sure its users knew what was happening by displaying the message, “According to current legal regulations and policies, some search results have not appeared.”

Perhaps Google may have been successful over time in persuading the Chinese authorities that censorship cannot succeed in today's world of global communications. But its hand has been forced by discovering that “highly sophisticated and targetted attacks on our corporate infrastructure” have been taking place and in some cases have led to the identification of Google users who the authorities wanted to track down. This has put the matter on a much more serious level and Google are right to make an issue of it.