Reporters Sans Frontieres has just reported that cyberdissident Li Zhi was imprisoned in China in 2003 on charges of “inciting subversion” based on evidence provided by Yahoo! Hong Kong. This case echoes the previous case of Shi Tao, a reporter sentenced to ten years in prison for “revealing state secrets” based on information from Yahoo! Hong Kong.
The information about Li Zhi came out in court proceedings posted by Li’s lawyer. RSF is now asking Yahoo! to come clean about the information they’ve revealed to the Chinese government – they wonder how many of the 81 dissidents they’re lobbying for the release for have been arrested with Yahoo’s assistance. Yahoo has replied by saying that they’ve provided “only responded with what we were legally compelled to provide, and nothing more”. This may be true, but it clearly illustrates the irresponsibility associated with putting servers that contain critical user information in governments with a long track record of failing to protect basic human rights.
In the recent debate over Google’s decision to provide censored search results on their Google.cn service, I feel that not enough attention was paid to what Google DIDN’T do in China. Google didn’t introduce their Gmail service on a Chinese server. They didn’t introduce Blogger, either, and their senior policy counsel Andrew McLaughlin (disclosure: friend, Berkman colleague, co-author with me on academic papers) says on the Google blog, “…we’re not going to offer some Google products, such as Gmail or Blogger, on Google.cn until we’re comfortable that we can do so in a manner that respects our users’ interests in the privacy of their personal communications.”
In other words, Google decided they couldn’t sacrifice China as a market entirely by continuing to provide a search engine that’s largely unusable in China, despite a recognition that a censored search engine is, at best, a morally questionable proposition. But when it came to publishing and communication tools – tools with a strong potential to land users in prison – they’ve ceded the market (and the legal problems) to Yahoo!, Microsoft and Chinese companies. It’s not a perfect solution, by a long shot, but it’s certainly more responsible than Yahoo!’s solution, which seems to be to cooperate with the Chinese government to imprison political dissidents.
So why isn’t Yahoo! seeing the outrage that Google saw in the wake of its decision to put up a Google.cn search engine? It may be that we, as the web public, expect more of a company that has as an unofficial motto “Don’t be evil”… as opposed to Yahoo!, which despite its cool and webby origins appears as maintstream and commercial as anything else on the web. It may be that many of us (myself included) use Google every day and Yahoo! seldom and don’t like the idea that we’re supporting a company that makes moral compromises.
Or it may be a simple case where bloggers and journalists miss the subtleties of an argument and condemn everyone who strays from a moral absolute: “Don’t help a repressive government oppress its population.” Unfortunately, figuring out how to share the Internet with China is all about subtlety. If US companies disengage from China entirely, Chinese companies will happily take up the slack. With most major blogging sites blocked in China (with the exception of MSN Spaces, which follows guidelines suggested by the Chinese government DESPITE the fact that their servers are hosted outside China), companies like Bokee and Blogbus have been happy to pick up the slack… and censor politically sensitive posts.
Complete disengagement simply guarantees that the Chinese internet and the rest of the internet will look less and less alike as both grow. Companies like Google and Yahoo! could have a much more powerful impact by engaging – cautiously – in the Chinese market and fighting like hell to protect their users’ rights. So far, Yahoo! evidently hasn’t put up much of a fight when asked for information that could put their users into prison. Microsoft has shown little interest in protecting users’ rights to speak when they criticize the government, like blogger Michael Anti.
Let’s hope Google shows more courage when their involvement in China puts them at odds with the Chinese authorities.