Google’s decision to halt censorship on its search engine in China and its threat to pull out of the Chinese market in response to cyber-attacks that seek to access the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists sets a new standard for other companies operating in China. A Google blog this morning ( announcing the decision was front page news worldwide.

Mary Beth Markey, ICT Vice President for Advocacy responded to the news, saying: “This could be an historic step in the advancement of free speech in China, one that we hope will be seized on by the people as a crack in the wall of censorship that separates them from the truth. Whatever Google’s calculation, they have publicly pinned their decision on the principle of freedom of speech. This sets a new standard that we call on them to stand by and other foreign companies to meet.”

The latest news from Google comes in the context of stepped-up efforts by Chinese government authorities to criminalize information-sharing and pursue charges of “subversion” for online, email or phone discussions with the outside world about the situation in Tibet. Beijing has set up a new task force within the Public Security Bureau specifically targeted at the “fabrication and spreading of rumors,” according to an official press report (Tibet Daily, December 26, 2008). This initiative has led to numerous detentions, and supports the trend identified by ICT of harsher punishments meted out for Tibetans who receive and impart information and opinions than for some Tibetans who actually take part in demonstrations.

Kunchok Tsephel, an official in a Chinese government environmental department and founder of the influential Tibetan literary website, Chodme (‘Butter-Lamp,’, was sentenced to 15 years in prison in November 2009 on charges believed to relate to content on his website, which aims to protect Tibetan culture, and to passing on information about protests in Tibet in 2008. (ICT report, Founder of Tibetan cultural website sentenced to 15 years in closed-door trial in freedom of expression case).

Norzin Wangmo, a Tibetan woman and Communist Party member, is serving a five-year prison sentence for passing on news over the phone and Internet about the situation in Tibet to the outside world (ICT report, Disappearances continue across Tibet: Tibetan woman sentenced for talking on telephone).

Li Zhao, previously head of the national police contingent responsible for monitoring the internet throughout China, was appointed head of the police force in the Tibet Autonomous Region soon after the protests of March 2008. Li’s appointment signaled a new focus on cracking down on dissent among Tibetans expressed online.

Google’s announcement comes one day before a scheduled speech by Google CEO Eric Schmidt to a meeting of Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives tonight (January 13).

Mary Beth Markey concluded: “For 20 years, we’ve battled against putting profits in the China market ahead of human rights. It’s impossible for us not to see Google’s decision as anything but a real victory for the people and those who support their struggle for greater freedoms. It is fitting that Mr. Schmidt is meeting with members of the House this evening, many of whom, including Nancy Pelosi and, of course, the late Tom Lantos, have cautioned U.S. companies that it is in their self-interest to take on a stronger role in the development of both more progressive economic and political systems in China.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is scheduled to speak on internet freedom next week. Yesterday she said that Google’s cyber-attack allegations raised “serious concerns” and looked to the Chinese government for “an explanation.”