US Internet Firms Under Scrutiny Again in China
By Patrick Goodenough
CNSNews.com International Editor
August 29, 2007
(CNSNews.com) - 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
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
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
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
'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
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