PEOPLE surfing the internet in China were for the first time yesterday introduced to bloody pictures of the Tiananmen massacre, torture of Falun Gong practitioners and even internecine Chinese leadership rumours, as Google told Chinese censors it had had enough.
Google announced that Beijing's relentless tightening of censorship controls and a vast recent cyber attack that originated in China had convinced it to stop self-censoring search results, even if that meant pulling out of the country.
China's moment of Google freedom was limited. In the morning in some parts of Beijing, at least, political material was visible on the Google search page but the underlying websites could not be accessed. By late afternoon pictures had been disabled and the search page had been scrubbed clean of material that was challenging to the authorities.
The clash between the biggest search engine and the fastest growing market place on the globe will have repercussions throughout the corporate world.
In a blog entry that was itself blocked in China, Google chief legal officer David Drummond said the decision to consider pulling out of its biggest potential growth market was prompted by a vast cyber attack, including an attempt to hack the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.
''We have taken the unusual step of sharing information about these attacks with a broad audience not just because of the security and human rights implications of what we have unearthed, but also because this information goes to the heart of a much bigger global debate about freedom of speech,'' Mr Drummond wrote.
While Chinese security agencies routinely monitor Gmail and other electronic communications, Mr Drummond said this was different because it attacked Google directly. He said it also targeted at least 20 other large companies.
''These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered … have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China,'' he wrote.
''We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese Government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all.
''We recognise that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn and potentially our offices in China.''
The rise of security, propaganda and censorship apparatus has primarily served to protect the Communist Party from perceived political threats. But it has also opened new avenues for corruption and cronyism.