Campaigners for free speech in China alleged US internet company Yahoo! for providing information that allowed Chinese police to sentence a cyber-dissident protester two years ago. The charge by Reporters Without Borders is likely to offer more ammunition to US congressional members, less than two weeks after Google said it would bend to Beijing’s wish to censor politically sensitive content.
Members of the US House of Representatives will interrogate internet executives next week about what they see as ethically questionable ties with China.
Reporters Without Borders claims that recently translated court documents show that Yahoo! helped the Chinese authorities to spot the rebel, Li Zhi, a 35-year-old resident of Sichuan province, through his email address and user name. In December 2003, Li was imprisoned for “inciting subversion” after posting online essays detailing cases of corruption among local government officials and cadres.
Yahoo! said it had no information about the case. However a spokesman, Mary Osako, said the company’s policy was to follow local law in turning over information requested in government subpoenas. “The choice in China is not whether to comply with law enforcement demands for information,” she said. “Rather, the choice is whether to remain in the country.”
In September 2005, human rights groups claimed Yahoo! provided data that led to a 10-year jail term for a journalist, Shi Tao.
Reporters Without Borders called on Yahoo! to release a list of all cyber-dissidents whose personal information it has handed to the Chinese authorities. “How many more cases are we going to find?” the Paris-based group said in a statement.
Though China has 110 million internet users – second only to the US – and is an increasingly productive market, it also has one of the worst records in the world on freedom of expression. In the past month, one editor has been killed, one dismissed and a leading publication closed down.
Earlier this month, Google was widely condemned for voluntarily filtering out information that it believed the government would not approve of, in order to get permission to base its servers in China.
December 2005 saw Microsoft coming in problems over the closing down of MSN Spaces site of one of China’s most influential bloggers, Michael Anti.
The court material in Li’s case was exposed by a leading Chinese writer and dissident, Liu Xiaobo, who said he had written a letter of complaint to Yahoo’s boss, Jerry Yang. “I feel very angry with what Yahoo! did in offering evidence to court. It is disgusting” said Mr Liu.
On February 15, the US House of Representatives’ committee on international relations will hold a hearing on the ethical responsibilities of companies doing business in China.