Newswatch | Newswatch

You are here

Yahoo is too cozy with Chinese regime

As U.S. technology companies pour investments into China, the one thing they’re not exporting is good old-fashioned American values of individual freedom.

French media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders called Yahoo Inc. "a Chinese police informant" earlier this week after it gave information about a journalist's personal email account to the Beijing government, which has imprisoned him for 10 years on charges of divulging state secrets.

Never mind that those alleged secrets were instructions such as "pay attention to any liaison between overseas democratic elements and individual media editors and reporters inside China."

Human rights group Privacy International has called for a worldwide consumer boycott of. Yahoo, which says it was simply operating under Chinese law: when the police ask for information, a company has to hand it over. An apologist could even make the argument that even in America, the controversial Patriot Act has given government greater access to personal data.

But not like this. "Yahoo turned a blind eye on how the data is used. It's obviously not just used to get criminals, its also used to nail dissidents and journalists," says Julien Pain, head of the Internet freedom desk of Paris-based Reporters Without Borders. "When those laws infringe on universal values, human rights and freedom of expression, at some point you have to say no."

Even if ethical considerations carry no clout with Yahoo -- and other players in China, like Google and Microsoft, all of whom censor their Chinese-language search results at the request of the government -- there’s also the brand name to worry about. Rebecca MacKinnon, a former CNN Beijing bureau chief now a research fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, believes Yahoo and its competitors should think twice about operating in countries that outlaw political opposition.

"They must recognize that helping put dissidents in jail is pretty bad for the corporate image. Is the damage to Yahoo's reputation, credibility, and consumer trust really worth whatever money they're making on that Chinese-language e-mail service? I don't think so," she wrote in her blog.

And, in the most puzzling twist to the story, she believes Yahoo in effect chose to turn in journalist Shi Tao because it runs its Yahoo.com.cn email service through servers hosted in China, rather than outside the country and its legal jurisdiction.

"It didn't have to do that. It could have provided a service hosted offshore only. If Shi Tao's email account had been hosted on servers outside of China, Yahoo wouldn't have been legally obligated to hand over his information," MacKinnon wrote.

In its defense, Sunnyvale, Calif.-based, Yahoo, which spent $1 billion last month for a 40 percent stake in Alibaba.com, China’s largest e-commerce company, said in a statement: "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."

That's not satisfying privacy rights groups. "Western companies are increasingly cutting deals with the Chinese government to serve their shareholders' interests at the expense of ethical governance," Simon Davies, director of London-based Privacy International, said in a statement. "A boycott would send a clear message to Yahoo shareholders and to other companies who cheerfully sacrifice human rights in return for a cut of the Chinese market."

About 103 million people in China use the Internet, second only to the United States. The Communist government in Beijing has spent at least $800 million on technology to monitor online activity, according to Radio Free Asia, a nonprofit corporation sponsored by the U.S. government. Residents of the town of Shenzhen recently were required to register their identification cards and real names before they could use an instant messaging service.

The victim in this case is Shi Tao, a former reporter for Contemporary Business News in Hunan province. According to English translations of the verdict that sentenced him to 10 years in prison, the Internet portal's China operation, Yahoo Holdings (Hong Kong) Ltd., provided police with information that enabled them to link an email he sent with the IP address of his computer. The message, sent in April 2004 from his Yahoo account to Web sites based abroad, contained his notes about government instructions for the media in the weeks before the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

"We know that Yahoo has been collaborating with the Chinese for a long time now on censorship issues," says Pain from Reporters Without Borders. "We didn't know they did this with their customers."

International PEN, the worldwide association of writers, has protested the sentence and called for the release of Shi Tao, who has also published several books of poetry and written political commentaries for a Chinese Web site run overseas.

Date posted: September 9, 2005 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 3295