UPDATE (at bottom): Google appears to have already turned off Chinese filters

Internet search giant Google dropped a bombshell on Chinese authorities Tuesday with the announcement that the firm is "no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn," the company's portal in China.

In a lengthy explanation posted to the official Google blog, Google's Senior Vice President David Drummond explained that the decision came after Chinese hackers used phishing scams and malware to access the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists around the world.

While the post does not explain precisely who was behind the attacks, it describes a "highly sophisticated and and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China."

As a consequence, Google decided it would no longer censor search results in the world's most populous nation. The reprocussions of such a move may mean that Google.cn shuts down for good.

"We launched Google.cn in January 2006 in the belief that the benefits of increased access to information for people in China and a more open Internet outweighed our discomfort in agreeing to censor some results," the company explained. "At the time we made clear that 'we will carefully monitor conditions in China, including new laws and other restrictions on our services. If we determine that we are unable to achieve the objectives outlined we will not hesitate to reconsider our approach to China.'"

"[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," the post continued. "We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China."

"This decision is refreshing," opined Cord Blomquist at the Technology Liberation Front. "Despite over two decades of easing restriction on its people, Chinese regime remains brutally oppressive and continues to commit heinous crimes against its own people. In a world that’s all too eager to look the other way so it can cash-in on China’s economic boom, Google has decided to forgo profits and take a stand against this oppressive regime.

"I hope that many other companies follow Google’s lead."

The announcement is particularly troubling to Chinese Internet users who saw the country's other largest search engine, Baidu, taken offline for approximately four hours on Tuesday by a group calling itself "The Iranian Cyber Army". Users who attempted to access the site were instead greeted with an Iranian flag and the message, "This site has been hacked by the Iranian Cyber Army”, written in Farsi.

Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, reported that the hackers had rewritten Baidu's DNS settings, directing traffic elsewhere.

A group also calling themselves "The Iranian Cyber Army" also claimed responsibility for a similar attack that knocked Twitter offline in mid-December.

Update: Google appears to have already turned off Chinese filters

A simple image search for "Tiananmen" on Google.cn reveals that the company has already taken the filters off its Chinese Web portal.

The search returned with results featuring the famous image of a Chinese dissident standing in front of a line of tanks. The iconic photograph was taken in June of 1989, during a spate of Beijing protests against communist rule. When Google launched its portal in China, it was heavily criticized in the West for complying with Chinese authorities in censoring the image.

The screen shot below is from an image search on Google.cn.