Yahoo! in China - Background

Yahoo! in China - Background

Yahoo! in China - Background

Shi Tao

Shi Tao, a Chinese poet and journalist, is serving a ten-year prison sentence in China for sending an email to the U.S. According to a letter Amnesty International received from Yahoo! (YHOO), and Yahoo!'s own later public admissions, Yahoo! China provided account-holder information, in compliance with a government request, that led to Shi Tao's sentencing.

Mr. Shi was accused of "illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities" after sending an email summarizing an internal Communist Party directive to a source in the US. The directive had warned Chinese journalists of possible social unrest during the anniversary of the June 4 Movement (in memory of the Tiananmen crackdown), and directed them not to fuel it via media reports. In addition to publicizing this government directive, Shi Tao had also written essays and articles highlighting issues around the pro-democracy movement, including an April 2004 essay criticizing the detention of Ding Zilin, founder of the Tiananmen Mothers organization which seeks information about what happened to victims of the 1989 crackdown.

Imprisoned for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression, a right entrenched in international law and the Chinese Constitution, Shi Tao is considered a Prisoner of Conscience.

The Bigger Problem

Shi Tao's case is not an aberration. Governments around the world are asking companies, including Yahoo!, to comply with their efforts to repress people's rights to freedom of expression and privacy.

Companies must respect human rights, wherever they operate, and Yahoo! must give adequate consideration to the human rights implications of its operations and investments. Beginning in 2005, Amnesty International raised its concerns with Yahoo! about internet censorship in China generally and the case of Shi Tao in particular. Yahoo!'s initial response stated that "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."

In fact, Yahoo! and other IT companies operating in China have far more than the two choices offered above, which we have expressed to them, reported on publicly in Undermining Freedom of Expression in China, and testified to before the Human Rights Caucus of the U.S. Congress in February 2006 and again in May 2008

After being faced with mounting public pressure and a lawsuit, Yahoo! has begun taking some steps to address concerns about their operations in China and other repressive countries, but it remains unclear what impact these changes have had on users in China. Censorship has not only continued, it has worsened. Internet access remains highly restricted, and websites are being shut down in the run-up to the Olympic Games. At least 50 people, including Shi Tao and Yang Tongyan, are in prison for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of opinion and expression in China. In this environment, Amnesty questions how internet companies have made concrete changes in their operations that would prevent past abuses from reoccurring.

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Yahoo!'s choices

Yahoo! has voluntarily signed the 'Public Pledge on Self-discipline for the Chinese Internet Industry.' Among other things, the Pledge requires Yahoo! to 'refrain from producing, posting or disseminating harmful information that may jeopardize state security and disrupt social stability, contravene laws and regulations and spread superstition and obscenity.' The pledge encourages Internet companies to register the real names, addresses and other personal details of the bloggers, and then keep this information, in addition to deleting any "illegal or bad messages". Yahoo! is under no legal obligation to sign this pledge, yet they chose to sign it in 2007.

Amnesty calls on Yahoo! to rescind their agreement to abide by the pledge which contradicts their stated intent in participating in the multi-stakeholder initiative, an effort that emphasizes the upholding of international standards in the face of government crack-downs on human rights.

Another poor choice that Yahoo! made was misleading the U.S. Congress as to how much information it has about a request for user information before handing it over. Yet, at a Congressional hearing held on February 15, 2006, Yahoo! presented formal testimony regarding Shi Tao specifically and internet censorship generally, and responded to many questions from Representatives of Congress about their role in China. Google, Microsoft and Cisco Systems also presented testimony. Overall, Congress was not satisfied with the current state of play regarding IT and human rights in China, leading to a spirited debate about what could be done.

Despite being faced with the tragic reality of the company's role in Shi Tao's arrest and detention, and allegedly the detentions of other internet dissidents, Yahoo! essentially denied any responsibility for investigating how email user information was being utilized by the Chinese government in its February 2006 testimony.

In fact, it asserted that the company had no knowledge of the nature of Shi Tao's investigation at the time. However, a Chinese police document that later surfaced indicated that Yahoo! was at least aware of the general nature of the "crime," before it decided to hand over Shi Tao's account user information: The Duihua Foundation reported that an April 2004 police notice to Yahoo! states that the police were seeking evidence in a suspected case of "illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities," an offense that is often cited by government officials to hinder freedom of expression rights of dissidents and journalists.

On November 6, 2007, Yahoo! was requested to appear again before the U.S. Congressional House Foreign Relations Committee to explain the apparent discrepancy in how much it knew about the request for Shi Tao's information. At the hearing, the late Rep. Tom Lantos told Yahoo! that, "while technologically and financially you are giants, morally you are pygmies."

Finally, Yahoo! should not consider it an option to arrange a business relationship with a Chinese Internet company and then cite its own lack of control over its operations as an excuse for not taking pro-active steps to stop involvement in abuse of freedom of expression or privacy rights. But, on more than one occasion, Yahoo! has cited its relationship with Alibaba (Alibaba controls Yahoo! China in exchange for Yahoo!'s 40% ownership share of Alibaba) to explain its lack of ability to resist government requests for user information.

Addressing the issue

Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang offered an apology to Shi Tao's mother, who attended the November 6th hearing. On November 14, it was announced that Yahoo! settled the lawsuit brought by the families of Shi Tao and pro-democracy activist and blogger Wang Xiaoning, both of whom were convicted and imprisoned based on information that Yahoo! gave to the Chinese authorities.

Because many terms of the settlement are private, it is difficult for Amnesty to assess the degree to which it will impact the human rights of Shi Tao or other journalists or dissidents in China.

In February 2008, Jerry Yang wrote a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urging her to help secure the release of dissidents in China. Amnesty welcomes this letter as a first step toward the action we have been asking Yahoo! to take to make that same appeal for Chinese prisoners of conscience with the Chinese government, the government that it assists in targeting journalists and dissidents for exercising peaceful, protected expression.

Yahoo! has said that it "balance[s] the requirement to comply with laws that are not necessarily consistent with [its] own values against [its] strong belief that active involvement in China contributes to the continued modernization of the country as well as a benefit to Chinese citizens through the advancement of communications, commerce and access to information."

It remains to be seen to what degree Yahoo! is benefiting Chinese citizens, since all of its services in China appear to comply with the same standards adhered to by their Chinese competitors. What we do know for a fact is that Yahoo's operation in China has contributed to at least one extremely severe case of human rights abuse. By complying with this censorship, companies like Yahoo! are sending a clear message to Chinese citizens that they endorse such practices.

Yahoo! seems to be making steps in the right direction, though. It has participated in a multi-stakeholder initiative to develop voluntary standards on freedom of expression and privacy, and in May 2008 it announced the establishment of a Business and Human Rights program within the company as part of its commitment to freedom of expression and privacy rights.

Amnesty is watching to see if the program will result in concrete changes to prevent a situation similar to Shi Tao's case from reoccurring in the future. While the description of the program sounds appealing, the actual impacts it will have on the ground is yet to be seen. For example, will the existence of the program compel Yahoo! to lobby the Chinese government to release Shi Tao? Will it cause Yahoo! to rescind its signature on the 2007 self-discipline pledge? Will it change how Yahoo! interacts with Alibaba? Will it result in the company's human rights impact assessments being disclosed and independently assessed?

A Role for Government

We agree with Yahoo! that "government-to-government dialogue is vital to achieve progress on these complex political issues" and that the U.S. government has an important role to play. As such, we used our 2006 and 2008 testimony to the Congress in part to call for legislation regulating U.S. Internet technology companies operating overseas, and other companies publicly traded on U.S. stock exchanges (which would include Baidu (BIDU), the primary Chinese competitor), requiring them to report on their participation in government-ordered filtering/censorship wherever they operate and prohibiting them from complying with violations of freedom of expression and information by repressive regimes.

That is why we are supporting the Global Online Freedom Act, which is designed to respond to and prevent censorship and abuse of freedom of expression on the Internet by placing restrictions on U.S. Internet content hosting companies operating in countries that censor, prosecute and/or persecute individuals based on the exercise of such freedoms.

We are pleased that Yahoo! has begun to recognize their important role in relationship to foreign governments. We hoped that its first step would be to call on the Chinese government for the immediate release of Shi Tao and other internet dissidents, both those imprisoned with the aid of Yahoo! as well as others. Sadly, this has not yet happened.

More needs to be done

You can join us in sending a message to Yahoo! that it still has more work to do to ensure it is not aiding human rights abuses in China. Amnesty International urges Yahoo! to:

- Publicly affirm Yahoo's support for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the company's commitment to respect and protect freedom of expression and privacy rights.

- Publicly make clear that abiding by human rights principles means Yahoo! will:

  • ensure that the company takes all possible legitimate action to avoid complying with government requests that may have a negative impact on human rights;
  •  challenge government policies and practices that violate human rights in the context of the Internet;
  • be transparent about filtering processes used to limit or restrict search results, including informing users and disclosing which terms are being censored and
  •  ensure its business partner, Alibaba, abides by the same principles.

- Commit to independent monitoring and evaluation of the company's compliance with its human rights principles.

- Support legislation, such as the Global Online Freedom Act, which would allow the US government to help companies stand up to repressive regimes in which they operate.

- Use the opportunity provided by the Beijing Olympics to publicly call on the Chinese Government to release, before the Games, Shi Tao, Yang Tongyan, Huang Jinqiu, and all others detained for their peaceful and legitimate use of the Internet.