A media watchdog group has accused American Internet giant Yahoo of helping the Chinese government track down a journalist, who later was sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of e-mailing state secrets.
Reporters Without Borders said Internet portal Yahoo provided information that enabled the Chinese government to link sensitive materials found on the Internet to the personal computer of reporter Shi Tao.
“We know Yahoo has been collaborating with the Chinese government on censorship issues, that’s well known,” said Julien Pain, head of the group’s Internet monitoring group in Paris. “We guessed they might also be helping the Chinese government identify cyber dissidents, tracking people down. It’s the first time we have proof they are doing this.”
Pain cited a translation of the April verdict, in which prosecutors say they obtained information from Yahoo Holdings (Hong Kong) Ltd., part of Yahoo’s global network.
Yahoo’s legal department in Beijing didn’t respond to inquiries, and its U.S. spokesman refused to answer questions about the case.
“Just like any other global company, Yahoo must ensure that its local country sites must operate within the laws, regulations and customs of the country in which they are based,” the company said in a written statement.
Industry insiders say Yahoo probably had no choice but to provide whatever information the Chinese authorities wanted for an investigation allegedly involving national security.
“As a company they are in no position to resist the government,” said Fang Xingdong, chief executive of Bokee, China’s largest web log service provider. Rights advocates counter that the government can define state secrets so vaguely that in effect, it criminalizes any communication it deems threatening.
Big technology firms such as Yahoo, Microsoft and Google have come under international criticism for yielding to Beijing’s strict censorship rules in order to protect their advances in the potentially lucrative Chinese online market. With nearly 100 million users, it is second only to that of the U.S.
That cooperation has meant finding ways to forbid words that Beijing says are subversive. Microsoft and its Chinese partner, for example, have agreed to restrict sensitive words such as “liberty,” “capitalism” and “human rights,” warning users to “delete the prohibited expression.”
Microsoft has said it must follow local laws, and added that its Chinese users are nonetheless sharing information and building relationships.
Some critics are concerned, however, that technology companies are being pressured into taking actions, such as tracing e-mails, that amount to suppression of free speech.
“What this incident tells people is that there is no safe place on the Chinese Internet under Chinese Net police, and there is no privacy or security in Yahoo’s China service either,” said Xiao Qiang, director of the Berkeley China Internet Project at UC Berkeley.
The convicted journalist, Shi, 37, had been an editor at Contemporary Business News. In April 2004, he attended an editorial meeting in which officials read out an internal document outlining media restrictions ahead of the 15th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, according to Reporters Without Borders.
Shi wrote about the contents of the meeting and sent it to a U.S. based pro-democracy website under the alias of 198964, the date of the June 4, 1989, massacre. For that, the government accused him of endangering national security, Reporters Without Borders said.
“Shi Tao leaked this information to an overseas hostile element,” according to a translation of the verdict obtained by Reporters Without Borders this week.
The court document stated that evidence of the crime came from Yahoo Holdings (Hong Kong) Ltd. Shi sent the e-mail from his terminal on the second floor of his office building in Changsha in Hunan province “at 11:32:17 p.m. on April 20, 2004.”
Shi was arrested in November at his home in northwestern China’s Shanxi province and sentenced in April after a trial that lasted two hours.
“Without the help of Yahoo maybe there are other ways to prove he’s guilty,” Pain said. “Certainly [Yahoo] made it so much easier for the Chinese government.”
Times staff writers Don Lee in Shanghai and Chris Gaither in San Francisco contributed to this report.