Just months after evidence emerged that Yahoo provided information that led to the arrest and imprisonment of Chinese journalist Shi Tao, the company is once again taking criticism for handing over information that allegedly led to the imprisonment of a Chinese political dissident.
In August 2003, Yahoo Holdings (Hong Kong) provided evidence to police that identified Chinese internet user Li Zhi, according to a document made available online by his lawyers. Li was subsequently jailed for eight years on charges that largely stemmed from his association with the banned China Democratic Party, a political opposition group.
First they came for Shi, no one spoke for Li
Li's case echoes that of Shi, a Chinese journalist who was jailed for ten years after Yahoo provided authorities with evidence from his personal email account.
"We are unaware of this case and are currently looking into the matter," said Mary Osako, a Yahoo spokeswoman in California. She added that any information provided to Chinese authorities in this case would have come from Yahoo's operations in China, rather than Hong Kong.
Yahoo's operations in Hong Kong and China once existed under the same legal entity but operated independently. That changed last year when Yahoo transferred control of its Chinese operations to a local internet company, Alibaba.com.
In the case of Shi, Yahoo executives last year admitted to providing the information that led to his arrest, saying the company is bound to operate under the laws and regulations of the countries where it does business.
Is dissidence a crime?
Word of Yahoo's involvement in Li's case was met by criticism from Reporters Without Borders, an advocacy group. "Yahoo certainly knew it was helping to arrest political dissidents and journalists, not just ordinary criminals," the group said in a statement on its website.
"The company must answer for what it is doing at the US congressional hearing set for February 15," the statement said, calling on Yahoo to reveal the number of times it has provided users' personal information to Chinese police.
Yahoo pleads ignorance
Yahoo contested the charge that it knows when information provided to Chinese authorities may be used to arrest political dissidents. "We would not know whether that demand for information is focused on murder, kidnapping or another crime," Osako said.
US internet companies have faced growing criticism for their actions in China. Microsoft's MSN division was condemned for censoring a Chinese journalist's blog and Google's decision to offer a censored version of its search engine was met with widespread criticism, including student protests, in the US.
The US House of Representative's Subcommittee on Global Human Rights, Africa and International Operations, plans to hold hearings on February 15 to investigate how internet companies operate in China. Representatives from Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Cisco and Reporters Without Borders are expected to attend.
Reporters Without Borders said 49 dissidents and 32 journalists are currently jailed in China, on charges that stem from internet articles to online criticism of Chinese authorities.