Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Yahoo! helps imprison Chinese dissident

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.


Update: Roland Soong of the indispensible ESWN blog has gone through the documents provided by Li’s lawyer and concluded that the evidence provided by Yahoo! was one piece of a much larger set of evidence. He believes that RSF’s press release was overblown, but acknowledges that there is evidence that Yahoo! has cooperated with Chinese authorities in this case. My colleague Rebecca MacKinnon has more thoughts on Roland’s research and Yahoo’s responsibility.


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.

3 Responses to “Yahoo! helps imprison Chinese dissident”

  1. technologos says:

    While in total agreement in respect to Yahoo’s amoral
    Internet policy in China I disagree with Google chief architect defined strategies as embodiement of less evil who potentially plants censorship dragon’s teeth.

    Technologos Challenge Google’s Digital Integrity with Human Rights Paradygm and Intellectual Freedom Ethos of Internet.
    Google corporate leadership betrayed it’s credo of intellectual integrity as most innovative search engine of net intelligence is cognitive fiasco and ethical failure while Cisco’s claims of technological neutrality in global design of web backbone grid is absurd as it integrates security (counter)intelligence features in it’s swithes infrastructure and so SUN’s platforms.
    Yahoo’s total adherence to economics of consumerism policies is omnipotent evidence of disregard to ethical human rights values.

    The Internet giants who were called to Senate’s Hearing Court on Human Rights Internet abuse in China have consented to ignore to appear in person and counterargue the opposition testimonies with principal accusations in ethical misconduct Internet business while Google’s sr. adviser has published it’s paper but not responded to testemonial briefs which was presented in the Technologos blog on Digital Integrity linked to the Andrew McLaughlin’s ( your’s disclosure: friend, Berkman colleague, co-author with me on academic papers) on the Google blog on the Human Rights Caucus Hearing where he wasn’t present while John Palfrey your Berkman collegue delivered in person his testimony which he published on the Google blog)
    in it’s substance for constructive discussions.
    Some relevant to the Internet Freedom problem on the blog: http://spaces.msn.com/technologos

  2. Complete disengagement simply guarantees that the Chinese internet and the rest of the internet will look less and less alike as both grow.

    Unless you mean this in the superficial “we have the same search engine companies” sense, I don’t see how we’re not already going down this path. In principle, Yahoo!, MSN and Google in China behave differently from the non-Chinese versions. In that respect, the two Internets are already becoming less and less alike — even if we still have common logos on the sites.

    Of course, one could conclude that the American search engines will start censoring and providing information on user activities at the request of Washington, too, in which case there would be few differences between the Chinese and non-Chinese versions… but not in the way one would hope.

  3. Ethan says:

    You’re not wrong, Jamais – I may be being too gentle with that sentence. China made the decision years ago to bifurcate the Internet. In that sense, they followed the lead of Saudi Arabia, UAE and other countries that control connectivity into their countries so effectively that they can filter all net traffic. What’s somewhat unique about China is that they’ve also been creating new companies and institutions, allowing the possibility of a completely separate, yet compelling and popular, internet that’s only used by Chinese speakers.

    I still think there’s a meaningful difference between a Google.cn which reveals that search engine results are filtered and a Chinese competitor which makes no mention of that fact. But there’s no doubt that Google’s decision is part of a bifurcated ‘net.

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