Just months after evidence emerged that Yahoo Inc. provided information that led to the arrest and imprisonment of Chinese journalist Shi Tao, the company is once again taking criticism for handing over information that allegedly led to the imprisonment of a Chinese political dissident.
In August 2003, Yahoo Holdings (Hong Kong) Ltd. provided evidence to police that identified Chinese Internet user Li Zhi, according to a document made available online by his lawyers. Li was subsequently jailed for eight years on charges that largely stemmed from his association with the banned China Democratic Party, a political opposition group.
Li’s case echoes that of Shi, a Chinese journalist who was jailed for 10 years after Yahoo provided authorities with evidence from his personal e-mail account.
“We are unaware of this case and are currently looking into the matter,” said Mary Osako, a Yahoo spokeswoman in Sunnyvale, California. She added that any information provided to Chinese authorities in this case would have come from Yahoo’s operations in China, rather than Hong Kong.
Yahoo’s operations in Hong Kong and China once existed under the same legal entity but in practice the two units operated independently. That changed last year when Yahoo transferred control of its Chinese operations to a local Internet company, Alibaba.com Corp.
In the case of Shi, Yahoo executives last year admitted to providing the information that led to his arrest, saying the company is bound to operate under the laws and regulations of the countries where it does business.
Word of Yahoo’s involvement in Li’s case was met by criticism from Reporters Without Borders, an advocacy group. “Yahoo certainly knew it was helping to arrest political dissidents and journalists, not just ordinary criminals,” the group said in a statement on its Web site.
“The company must answer for what it is doing at the U.S. congressional hearing set for February 15,” the statement said, calling on Yahoo to reveal the number of times it has provided users’ personal information to Chinese police.
Yahoo contested the charge that it knows when information provided to Chinese authorities may be used to arrest political dissidents. “We would not know whether that demand for information is focused on murder, kidnapping or another crime,” Osako said.
U.S. Internet companies have faced growing criticism for their actions in China. Microsoft Corp.’s MSN division was condemned for censoring the Web log of a Chinese journalist and Google Inc.’s decision to offer a censored version of its search engine was met with widespread criticism, including student protests, in the U.S.
The U.S. House of Representative’s Subcommittee on Global Human Rights, Africa and International Operations plans to hold hearings on Feb. 15 to investigate how U.S. Internet companies operate in China. Representatives from Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Cisco Systems Inc., and Reporters Without Borders, are expected to attend, according to a schedule of the planned session.
Reporters Without Borders said 49 dissidents and 32 journalists are currently jailed in China on charges that stem from Internet articles and online criticism of Chinese authorities.