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Yahoo’s cooperation helped China jail journalist: RSF

A French media watchdog has said information provided by Internet giant Yahoo Inc helped Chinese authorities convict and jail a writer who had penned an email about press restrictions in his country.

Shi Tao

The text of the verdict in the case of journalist Shi Tao - sentenced in April to 10 years in prison for "divulging state secrets abroad" - shows that Yahoo! Holdings (Hong Kong) Ltd provided China’s state security authorities with details that helped to identify and convict him, Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) said yesterday.

"We already knew that Yahoo! collaborates enthusiastically with the Chinese regime in questions of censorship, and now we know it is a Chinese police informant as well," RSF said in a stinging statement.

"Yahoo! obviously complied with requests from the Chinese authorities to furnish information regarding an IP address that linked Shi Tao to materials posted online, and the company will yet again simply state that they just conform to the laws of the countries in which they operate," it said.

"But does the fact that this corporation operates under Chinese law free it from all ethical considerations ? How far will it go to please Beijing ?" RSF said: "Information supplied by Yahoo! led to the conviction of a good journalist who has paid dearly for trying to get the news out. It is one thing to turn a blind eye to the Chinese government’s abuses and it is quite another thing to collaborate."

A spokesperson at Yahoo's Hong Kong office told French news agency AFP that the company did not have an immediate comment. "We're looking into this matter," she said.

Translated into English by the Dui Hua Foundation (which works to document the cases of Chinese political prisoners), the verdict revealed that Yahoo! Holdings (Hong Kong) Ltd. provided the Chinese investigating organs with detailed information that apparently enabled them to link Shi’s personal email account (huoyan-1989@yahoo.com.cn) and the specific message containing information treated as a "state secret" to the IP address of his computer.

Yahoo! Holdings (Hong Kong) is subject to Hong Kong legislation, which does not spell out the responsibilities in this kind of situation of companies that provide email services. Nonetheless, it is reportedly customary for email service and Internet access providers to transmit information to the police about their clients when shown a court order. Tests carried out by RSF seemed to indicate that the servers used for the Yahoo.com.cn email service, from which the information about Shi was extracted, are located on the Chinese mainland.

Shi, 37, worked for the daily Dangdai Shang Bao (Contemporary Business News). He was convicted on April 30 this year of sending foreign-based websites the text of an internal message which the authorities had sent to his newspaper warning journalists of the dangers of social destabilisation and risks resulting from the return of certain dissidents on the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Journalists in China had been told repeatedly not to mention 1989 and pretend that it didn’t happen, if they knew what was good for them. Rather than sitting on a good story, Tao gave it to the foreign press. The Chinese government considered the 1989 crackdown a state secret, and so Shi Tao was arrested for spying. China is the world's leading jailer of journalists; 42 writers and editors were behind bars at the end of 2004, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Chinese state security insisted during the trial that the message was "Jue Mi" (top secret). Shi admitted sending it out by email but disputed that it was a secret document. He is still being held in a prison in Changsha to which he was sent after his arrest in the northeastern city of Taiyuan on November 24, 2004.

The harsh criticism from RSF marks the latest instance in which a prominent high-tech company has faced accusations of cooperating with Chinese authorities to gain favour in a country that's expected to become an Internet gold mine.

California-based Yahoo! and two of its biggest rivals, Google Inc and Microsoft Corp's MSN, previously have come under attack for censoring online news sites and blogs that include content that China's communist government wants to suppress. The three portals are battling for a share of China's fast growing Internet market, which grew 18.4% year-on-year in the first half to 103 million users by the end of June this year. It makes China the second largest Internet user in the world after the United States. Google and Microsoft are also locked in a bitter legal battle over a former Microsoft engineer who Google hired in July to oversee the opening of a research centre in China.

Yahoo! appears to be willing to go to any lengths to gain shares of the Chinese market and it is investing heavily in local companies, RSF said. In 2003, it spent 120 million dollars to buy the search engine 3721.com. More recently Yahoo! acquired a large stake in the Internet giant Alibaba in an operation that reportedly cost nearly $1 billion. RSF has written several times to Yahoo! executives in an attempt to alert it to the ethical issues raised by its Chinese investments. These letters have so far received no answer.

For years Yahoo! has allowed the Chinese version of its search engine to be censored, RSF said. In 2002, Yahoo! voluntarily signed the "Public Pledge on Self-Discipline for the China Internet Industry", agreeing to abide by PRC censorship regulations. Searches deemed sensitive by the Chinese authorities such as "Taiwan independence" in Chinese into the Yahoo! China search engine, retrieve only a limited and approved set of results. Searches such as the 1989 massacre "June 4th" and the outlawed spiritual group "Falungong" in the Yahoo China search engine retrieved no results on Wednesday, according to AFP.

Only earlier this week, Cisco Systems came under flak from the author of a new book, "Losing the New China - A story of American Commerce, Desire, and Betrayal," for its involvement in establishing the state police "Policenet" system. Policenet is a system that gives the Chinese police direct access to the work unit of any citizen, which includes reports on previous political behaviour and family history, as well as photographs and fingerprints. It also allows them to access a citizen's web history and read email, according to the author.

The Taipei Times reported that Ethan Gutmann, the author of the book, believed Cisco unveiled Policenet to the authorities back at a Shanghai trade show in 2002. According to Gutmann, the system violates the US Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 1990 and 1991, suspending "the issuance of any license for the export to the People's Republic of China of any crime-control or detection instruments or equipment."

Date posted: September 7, 2005 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 2457