"We've met with the State Department and met with Chinese officials to ask for assistance in securing the release of some of these individuals," said Michael Samway, a Yahoo vice president and the firm's deputy general counsel. "We're hopeful that with the Olympics approaching there will be progress."
Human rights activists complain that Alibaba has not followed Yahoo's lead. Jack Ma, a former official with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Trade who built Alibaba, has often dismissed concerns about his firm's scrutiny of the Internet for the Chinese government. "As a business, if you cannot change the law, follow the law," he said the morning after Clinton's 2005 speech. "Respect the local government."
Ma has insisted that Alibaba operates independently from the Chinese government. But Ma's official background and China's tight oversight of its homegrown Internet and e-commerce firms are examples of the "blurred line between government and corporation," said Jonathan Zittrain, an Internet regulation expert who teaches at Oxford and Harvard universities and is co-director of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society.
"A Chinese government official doesn't have to order a local Internet operator to censor something," Zittrain said. "They might advise them that a certain article on their site doesn't look too kosher. It's communicated in code." The result, Zittrain said, is "the great firewall of China."
Other firms besides Yahoo and Alibaba have been criticized for cooperating with China's Internet monitoring. Google and Microsoft's MSN site have taken flak for decisions made by their China partners. And Chinese search engines and e-commerce firms that dominate the mainland market have routinely aided state security prosecutions, said Morton H. Sklar, Shi Tao's American lawyer.
'Most wanted' posting
Human rights activists said clear evidence of Alibaba's collaboration with China's state security apparatus surfaced last month with the appearance of a "most wanted" posting for Tibetan rioters on the firm's Yahoo China homepage.
The postings, which appeared March 15 on both Yahoo China and Microsoft's MSN China homepage, carried photos of suspected rioters and a phone number for informants to call. The postings vanished later the same day after news accounts highlighted them.
Yahoo officials said they had no advance warning from Alibaba that the postings would run. "We made our concerns known that the displays were inappropriate," one Yahoo official said, but were told by Alibaba officials "that it was a standard news feed."
The Clinton foundation spokeswoman would not address Alibaba's role in aiding the crackdown in Tibet. Instead, she emphasized the former president's efforts to push AIDS relief in China. "He has both pushed and helped the government of China to acknowledge and tackle the growing HIV-AIDs crisis facing their country," she said.
"You have to applaud President Clinton for his philanthropic interests," said Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy. "I wouldn't want to discourage it. But he certainly wouldn't want to be used as a tool for special interests to have undue influence."
Times researcher Janet Lundblad contributed to this report.