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Yahoo!’s see-no-evil policy on China

China's repressive government may one day allow the full flood of the Internet to sweep through Chinese society, but for now it is still dedicated to building ever higher and stronger seawalls against liberating knowledge.

Over the weekend, two state censorship agencies issued new and more stringent rules about what news can be published on the Internet and who can publish it. The rules established 11 "forbidden zones": topics that will be off limits for coverage. They include anything that might compromise state security or disclose state secrets - which sounds reasonable, except that in China practically anything that some party functionary thinks might reflect badly on the party, the government or the country may be deemed "a state secret."

Also banned are publishing news that might promote religious or superstitious beliefs; or spreading rumors that might lead to social unrest; or organizing unauthorized public meetings or protests.

That is, just about everything protected in America by the First Amendment.

Officially recognized online news providers must be "directed toward serving the people and socialism and insist on correct guidance of public opinion," the official Chinese news agency Xinhua said. And unofficial sources will be permitted to publish only news that has already appeared on an official site.

China cracks down hard on people who won't play by the rules. In April, a Hunanese journalist, Shi Tao, was convicted of illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Shi is not the only Chinese journalist sentenced to prison this year. At least two others are known, and the total number serving multi-year sentences is believed to be more than 40. But Shi's case has attracted more than the usual amount of attention, because authorities tracked him down with the help of Yahoo! Holdings Ltd. (based in Hong Kong).

The press freedom group Reporters without Borders reported recently that Shi had sent a message April 20, 2004, to American democracy activists. It was about plans to contain unrest on the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and it was intercepted by China's extensive monitoring software. Yahoo! provided the telephone number in Shi's newspaper office from which the message was sent.

Legally, Yahoo! may have had no choice. Its servers are located on the mainland, and when it is presented with a court order, it will comply, said Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang. Yang, who was attending a conference in Hangzhou, China, when the storm over Yahoo!'s participation broke, said on Sept. 10 that authorities don't tell them why information is needed or what crime is being investigated.

But in a broader context this is just one more incident in the unseemly scramble by Internet companies to be first on the ground inside the Chinese information wall. As News media critic Dave Kopel pointed out Saturday, not only Yahoo!, but also Microsoft, Google and Cisco Systems have altered their software to facilitate Chinese government snooping on Internet users, and to block information the government doesn't want its citizens to have.

In the long run, we're confident that Chinese Internet users, already 100 million strong, will break down the barriers to freedom and democracy. In the meantime, is it too much to ask that Internet companies speak out and deplore the policies of the tyrannical regimes with which they do business?

Date posted: September 25, 2005 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 3372