Google Inc. will stop censoring its search results in China and may pull out of the country completely after discovering that computer hackers had tricked human-rights activists into exposing their e-mail accounts to outsiders.

The change of heart announced Tuesday heralds a major shift for the Internet’s search leader, which has repeatedly said it will obey Chinese laws requiring some politically and socially sensitive issues to be blocked from search results available in other countries. The acquiescence had outraged free-speech advocates and even some shareholders, who argued Google‘s cooperation with China violated the company’s “don’t be evil” motto.

The criticism had started to sway Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who openly expressed his misgivings about the company’s presence in China.

But the tipping point didn’t come until Google recently uncovered hacking attacks launched from within China. The apparent goals: breaking into the computers of at least 20 major U.S. companies and gathering personal information about dozens of human rights activiststrying to shine a light on China’s alleged abuses.

Google spokesman Matt Furman declined to say whether the company suspects the Chinese governmentmay have had a hand in the attacks.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the Google allegations “raise very serious concerns and questions” and the U.S. is seeking an explanation from the Chinese government.

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