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It’s been no secret that our various cyber networks have been susceptible to attack. Whether by basement-dwelling hackers, international spies, criminal enterprises, vengeful employees or nation-states, the growth rate of cyber attacks has been exploding exponentially for years. As a result, we’ve all heard the FBI, DHS, the Pentagon and even the White House chime in on how serious this problem is. All of those efforts have basically been greeted by the conventional up and down head-bob followed by the expedited and innocuous statement, “Yes, this is serious.”

While there is nothing wrong with those reactions and the attention is surely warranted, something has dramatically changed, and it’s screaming on headlines across the country.

Take a good look at the front pages of the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and New York Times. Besides offering coverage of the devastation in Haiti, each is offering front page coverage of Google’s threat to leave the Chinese market rather than submit to censorship of its Chinese-language Web site and continue to endure coordinated cyber attacks from a yet unidentified source in China.

This is the first time I can recall that anything on cyber security has received this type of across-the-board, front-page media coverage. Even President Obama’s announcement in May 2009 of his 60-day Cyber Review didn’t garner attention like this.

This is a moment that bears acknowledgment.

For all the tireless and often under-acknowledged work our government and private sector has done in this area, all it took was one of the world’s largest and most innovative companies to roar, “We’re outta here if you keep this up!” to wake the world up to the seriousness of this problem.

To be fair, Google’s message to the media has consistently focused on the issue of censorship. Yet, the company also said that cyber attacks on certain e-mail accounts were part of the problem.

CNN quoted David Drummond, Google’s senior vice president of corporate development and chief legal officer, stating:

“These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered — combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the Web — have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China.”

Chinese human rights activists’ Google e-mail accounts were compromised, Google said. But where did the threat originate? This has not been definitively proven, although all signs point to the Chinese government. An absence of proof could account for Google’s focus on Chinese censorship rather than cyber threats. What is more, it would be bad business to openly state that Google’s e-mail services are unsecured. Thus, despite Google’s crafted statements, it seems cyber security is really the crux of the matter.

But what’s unique here is that the private sector giant – not the government, mind you – was able to bring the issue of cyber security to the front page.

As the most popular and most used Internet search engine with offerings in e-mail, mapping and more – when they speak, people listen. (It should be noted that Google holds only a third of Chinese searches, while the Chinese-run company Baidu holds the majority)

It’s a tremendously bold move Google made, and we should all be applauding them for it. It took a lot of guts to confront one of the world’s biggest bullies and literally threaten to take their ball and go home – but they’ve done it.  The question now is, “will they follow through?”

The Chinese are not taking this sitting quietly (and aren’t necessarily willing to change their behavior), but the world is paying attention to this issue like no other time before.

I’m anxious to see what happens next.

Rich Cooper blog primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More