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US Internet firms under scrutiny again in China

( - American Internet companies' operations in China are back in the spotlight, as Yahoo fends off a lawsuit brought on behalf of imprisoned dissident journalists and press freedom groups, who are expressing concern about a new "self-discipline" pledge designed to tighten controls on Chinese bloggers.

Yahoo on Monday asked an Oakland, Calif., court to throw out the case brought by a human rights group on behalf of Shi Tao and Wang Xiaoning. The two are both serving 10-year prison terms in China for writings on the Internet, after allegedly being tracked down with the help of account-holder information provided by Yahoo.

The World Organization for Human Rights USA charges in the complaint that by releasing the information, Yahoo "knowingly and willfully aided and abetted in the commission of torture and other major abuses violating international law that caused plaintiffs severe physical and mental suffering."

In defense papers filed Monday, Yahoo said it sympathized with the plaintiffs and families but had no control over Chinese laws or the way they were enforced, and could not be held liable. Its Chinese operations are bound by Chinese law.

The case was a political one "challenging the laws and actions of the Chinese government," Yahoo argued. "It has no place in the American courts."

Shi reportedly used his private Yahoo email account to send information to a pro-democracy Chinese publication in the U.S.

According to a translation of his official trial record, Chinese investigators tracked him down with the help of "account holder information furnished by Yahoo Holdings (Hong Kong)," which confirmed the IP address of Shi's computer and the phone number he used to connect to the Internet.

Shi was convicted and sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment, followed by two years "deprivation of political rights," according to the court papers, which were translated and made available by the California-based Dui Hua Foundation, a group that documents information about political trials in China.

Wang received the same sentence in his 2003 trial. He had been accused of using an online journal to criticize the Communist Party leadership and advocate a multiparty political system with free elections and separation of powers.

The lawsuit against Yahoo charges that the Chinese court "relied on evidence supplied by defendants to identify and convict Wang."

At the time of the arrests, Yahoo wholly owned Yahoo Holdings Hong Kong (YHKL). Since 2005, YHKL has been majority-owned by a Chinese e-commerce firm, Alibaba, which bought the rights to operate as Yahoo China.

The Dui Hua Foundation recently released translations of a purported state security bureau notice presented to the Beijing office of YHKL in April 2004, demanding information relating to Shi's activities online.

The document, which Dui Hua says it believes is authentic, refers to "a case of suspecting illegal provision of state secrets to foreign entities that is currently under investigation."

Dui Hai said the document raised new questions about how much Yahoo knew at the time it was asked to hand over the information.

Yahoo senior vice president and general counsel Michael Callahan said in congressional testimony last year that when Yahoo was asked to provide information about a user -- who it later learned was Shi Tao -- "we had no information about the nature of the investigation. Indeed, we were unaware of the particular facts surrounding the case until the news story emerged."

Blogging restrictions tightened

China is the world's fastest-growing Internet market, with 162 million people online, according to figures released by the China Internet Network Information Center last month. That number has climbed from 111 million a year ago.

Yahoo is not the only U.S. Internet giant whose operations in China have drawn flak.

Google has admitted that it keeps politically sensitive items off the Chinese version of its popular news site, saying Beijing's web filters would block them anyway. Microsoft has also been criticized for restricting what Chinese bloggers using its software can write.

This month a new concern has arisen in the form of a "self-discipline" pledge that major blog service providers in China have agreed to sign.

The Internet Society of China (ISC), which falls under a government information ministry, said the pledge "encourages" real-name registration of bloggers, the Xinhua news agency reported on August 21. Companies are also required to delete "illegal and bad information" from blogs.

Earlier, it was proposed that service providers would be required to register bloggers under their real names, but the pledge stops short of making it a requirement.

Nonetheless, ISC head Huang Chengqing was quoted by Xinhua as saying that "blog service providers who allow the use of pseudonyms may be more attractive to bloggers, but they will be punished by the government if they fail to screen illegal information."

Press freedom groups see this as a further curtailing of online expression in China.

"The Chinese government depends on the complicity of private companies to effectively monitor and censor Internet content," Committee to Protect Journalists executive director Joel Simon said Monday.

"Internet companies should be doing everything they can to promote the free exchange of news and information in China, rather than voluntarily assisting the state in gathering information that could be used to target independent journalists and political dissidents."

Another group, Reporters Without Borders, said the move "will have grave consequences for the Chinese blogosphere."

MSN China and Yahoo China are among those that have signed on to the pledge, although both Microsoft and Yahoo have told press freedom watchdogs that they do not intend to require real-name registration for bloggers.

'U.S. companies should not be helping dictatorships'

In its reaction to the lawsuit Yahoo faces in California, the human rights group Freedom House said Tuesday it was "extremely distressing to see U.S. companies complying with repressive governments to limit citizens' freedom of expression and access to information."

"Despite the charges [against Wang and Shi], these are not cases in which individuals are actually divulging state secrets or compromising national security," Paula Schriefer, the organization's director of advocacy, said in a statement.

"American citizens have made it very clear that they don't believe U.S. companies should be helping dictatorships crack down on their own people. Technology companies that are determining how to conduct business with repressive regimes should bear this in mind as they navigate this difficult terrain," she said.

In a statement provided Tuesday, Yahoo spokeswoman Kelley Benander said that the company "strongly support[s] freedom of expression and privacy around the world."

"Yahoo has engaged extensively with the U.S. government on the issues in China and we will continue to work with industry partners, as well as human-rights organizations, on a global framework for technology companies operating in countries that restrict free expression and privacy," she added.

Date posted: August 29, 2007 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 9