Li Zhi, a 35-year-old civil servant, and Shi Tao, a reporter, will spend much of the next decade in Chinese jails because of pro-democracy e-mails they wrote, and a U.S.-based Internet company allegedly helped put them behind bars.
Reporters Without Borders, an international press freedom advocacy group based in Paris, has accused Yahoo! of systematically aiding the Chinese government in digging up evidence on political dissidents. According to the organization, last year Yahoo!’s Chinese partner had turned over e-mail and search data to assist in jailing Tao for 10 years. Reporters Without Borders alleges it has now discovered that in 2003 Yahoo! China also turned over Zhi’s personal e-mails, contributing to his prosecution for making contact with the China Democracy Party and posting writings critical of corrupt local politicians. Zhi was sentenced to eight years in prison for “inciting subversion.”
Reporters Without Borders has demanded Yahoo! release a list of all the cases in which it has turned over evidence regarding political dissidents, they said in a Web site statement. The organization expects more of the 81 Chinese political prisoners it is currently advocating for to appear on such a list.
A Yahoo! spokesperson said the law does not require the Chinese government to explain the reason it has demanded data and that it rarely does, according to the BBC. Reporters Without Borders finds this unacceptable and states Yahoo! can no longer deny that it has helped put pro-democracy dissidents behind bars or claim that its ongoing cooperation with the Chinese government will not have similar targets. One SojoMail reader has responded by switching his Yahoo! e-mail address to another service in protest, encouraging others to do likewise. Responding to a similar consumer backlash, Microsoft has been forced to defend its decision to shut down a blog on its MSN Spaces service at the request of China. Corporations and their investors are beginning to wonder if engaging the lucrative Chinese market on its terms may not lose them too much business in the West.
Even in the U.S. – where the constitution safeguards privacy – technology observers have become concerned about the amount of information held by search engines and e-mail services. The data these services possess often amounts to an intimate and thorough personal history of a user: potentially every e-mail sent and search conducted. As these companies continue to offer ever more services their records only become more comprehensive.
Of Web service providers, Google has attracted more attention – perhaps because it is the most used search engine and has the motto, “Don’t Be Evil.” However, in most cases, including its recent decision to self-censor its Chinese service, Google has been the last among rivals MSN and Yahoo! to acquiesce. In the case of recent wide-ranging U.S. Justice Department subpoenas requesting substantial search engine data, Google has gone to court to fight the subpoenas while its rivals and America Online have simply complied.
Only a couple of years ago it appeared that China’s totalitarian regime could not control the globalizing influences of the Internet. Its attempts at censorship were said to be piecemeal and easy to bypass. Internet behemoths like Google were so dominant they didn’t need to please anyone. On the other hand, even two years ago Yahoo! was allegedly already cooperating with Chinese government repression. Now the Chinese economy has boomed and while its censorship is getting more sophisticated Beijing has been aided by an intensely competitive battle over the Internet services market, principally between Microsoft-MSN, Yahoo! and Google.
It appears that competition is producing an ethical race to the bottom, and it is that market failure that spurred a congressional hearing on Feb. 15 to discuss the ethical responsibilities of U.S.-based Internet businesses operating inside China. There is bipartisan support from the House Committee on International Relations for taking a more confrontational stance toward China but it will be a difficult fight, at least for the committee’s Republicans, given the president’s part in warrantless wiretapping and other surveillance of political dissidents as well as the imprisonment without due process of prisoners on Guantánamo. Once again, the brash, authoritarian approach of the administration toward terrorism and security has crippled its declared intentions to promote liberty abroad by undermining any moral authority the government may have once held.
For their part, all three search engine competitors now have the same line for the media: it is better for the Chinese people to have limited access to their Internet services than none. To the coming congressional hearing, the three also presented a unified position, deftly passing the buck to the government and insisting that it press Beijing to change its stance on censorship and human rights. Of course, if the three Web service titans had presented such a united front to China, it is likely Beijing would not have been willing to isolate its rapidly growing economy, including a burgeoning IT sector that competes with India’s, by cutting off from the essential Internet tools of the 21st century.
James Ferguson is news and intern assistant for Sojourners.