Yahoo! May Have Aided Arrest of Chinese Journalists

Internet service provider Yahoo! has allegedly given information to the Chinese government that led to the imprisonment of two Web "journalists." Technology maven Xeni Jardin reports on the controversy, and the response from Yahoo! to charges the Web giant too readily bows to Chinese government demands because the potential market is so huge.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Freedom of the press is also a big issue online. An international press advocacy group says the Internet service provider Yahoo! has helped the Chinese authorities go after some government critics. Yahoo! admits that in one case it did surrender information about a Chinese account-holder who had posted criticism of his government.

Our tech contributor, Xeni Jardin, she's also an editor at boingboing.net, has this report.

(Soundbite of movie music)

XENI JARDIN reporting:

Yahoo! China's homepage offers search, email and MP3's like this theme song from Jet Li's latest action movie. Thirty-five-year-old Chinese citizen Li Zhi logged on to the site, created an anonymous email account, then used it to post comments criticizing local officials. U.S.-based China news site boxun.com says Chinese authorities asked Yahoo! for the personal information behind that account, and Yahoo! complied. Li Zhi has received an eight-year prison sentence for inciting subversion.

The allegation that Yahoo! had a hand in the case carries more weight, because last year a journalist in China name Shi Tao was jailed for ten years after Yahoo! released his account data to Chinese government investigators. Yahoo! says it didn't know that the government information requests were aimed at journalists.

Ms. MARY OSAKO (Yahoo! Spokesperson): Governments are not required to inform service providers why they're seeking certain information, and typically do not do so.

JARDIN: Yahoo! spokesperson Mary Osako says the company cooperated with authorities in Shi Tao's case, but hasn't confirmed or denied that it played a role in Li Zhi's. Osako says the benefits of doing business with China outweigh the sometimes troubling costs.

Ms. OSAKO: The choice in China or other countries is not whether to comply with law enforcement demands for information. Rather, the choice is whether or not to remain in a country, and Yahoo! has always believed in a philosophy of engagement.

JARDIN: That argument isn't good enough, according to Lucie Morillon of Reporters Without Borders. The group says they've confirmed Yahoo! provided data that led Li Zhi's imprisonment, and the company needs stricter standards when cooperating with the Chinese government.

Ms. LUCIE MORILLON (Reporters Without Borders): When Yahoo! says we obey local laws, we have no choice, there are some principles that are above local laws, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19, that protects freedom of expression.

JARDIN: Reporters Without Borders claims 81 journalists and dissidents are in Chinese prisons over free speech issues. Yahoo! maintains they can't say how many cases it may have played a role in.

Orville Shell is dean of U.C. Berkeley Journalism School, and he says it's the responsibility of American tech firms to find ways to do business in China without abandoning American principles of free speech and an independent press.

Mr. ORVILLE SHELL (Dean, U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism): Part of the problem about doing business in China as a corporation is that it's very easy to get sort of picked off one at a time. What's needed is for them to get together, perhaps with others who are in similar kinds of business, and to try to get some common front.

JARDIN: Qiang Xiao is the director of U.C. Berkeley's China Internet Project. He says the very nature of Yahoo!'s services makes it imperative they pay greater attention to human rights.

Mr. QIANG XIAO (Director, China Internet Project, U.C. Berkeley): Companies such as Yahoo! possess so much knowledge and information of their individual users, giving them enormous responsibility to make sure those information knowledge should not be abused.

JARDIN: Xiao hopes Yahoo!, Google, Microsoft, and other U.S. tech firms get guidance about these issues form Congress later this week. On Wednesday, a House committee will hold a hearing that's titled with a question, The Internet in China, a Tool for Freedom or Suppression? So far the answer may be both.

For DAY TO DAY, I'm Xeni Jardin.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: