Reporters Without Borders broke the story yesterday.
Chinese Journalist Shi Tao was arrested for "divulging state secrets abroad" thanks to Yahoo!'s help. Shi used a Yahoo China account to e-mail his notes on an internal government circular detailing measures to control the press to a dissident website. Yahoo! complied with Chinese authorities' requests for information, which helped trace those emails back to Shi.
Media reports quote a Yahoo! spokeperson who only says that the company is "looking into it." Reporters Without Borders says:
"The company will yet again simply state that they just conform to the laws of the countries in which they operate. But does the fact that this corporation operates under Chinese law free it from all ethical considerations? How far will it go to please Beijing?"
In discussions of this case in various places, it has been pointed out that the Yahoo! Terms of Service - which are identical in Chinese - make it clear that Yahoo! does not intend to protect people's communications from their governments:
"You acknowledge, consent and agree that Yahoo! may access, preserve, and disclose your account information and Content if required to do so by law or in a good faith belief that such access preservation or disclosure is reasonably necessary to: (a) comply with legal process; (b) enforce the TOS; (c) respond to claims that any Content violates the rights of third-parties; (d) respond to your requests for customer service; or (e) protect the rights, property, or personal safety of Yahoo!, its users and the public."
Lots of people are morally outraged by what Yahoo! did to Shi Tao. It is indeed upsetting that a man who was merely acting in accordance with principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights gets thrown in jail with help from an American tech company.
That aside, there is another concern: A lot of people in China and elsewhere use Yahoo! and GMail accounts under the false illusion that their communications are more secure from government eyes than if they were to use Chinese e-mail services. This is clearly wrong.
Human rights organizations, media organizations, and others who are seeking and receiving sensitive information via e-mail from people inside China have a responsibility to educate the e-mailers about the security dangers they face. People must be warned very clearly:
IF YOU ARE WORRIED ABOUT GETTING IN TROUBLE, DO NOT USE YAHOO OR GMAIL, OR ANY OTHER SERVICE WHOSE PARENT COMPANY HAS A BUSINESS PRESENCE IN CHINA.
The same goes for blogging tools.
For secure e-mailing purposes, people in the security community recommend Hushmail.
One recommended blogging service run by people committed to human rights and freedom of speech is Civiblog, based in Canada.
CORRECTION/CLARIFICATION/ADDENDUM: (9/7, 8:30pm) A friend at Google points out that since Gmail isn't currently "offered in China" and is a U.S.-based service run on U.S. servers, on a .com domain name, it is not subject to Chinese legal jurisdiction. Only when Gmail gets offered "via a PRC entity" (as Chinese Yahoo! is) will that be the case.
The same person also writes:
"Likewise, Hotmail was for many years provided to Chinese users from the US, on US servers, etc. -- the result was that MSFT didn't have to respond to Chinese requests for info about Hotmail subscribers. I don't know if that's changed with the new joint venture for ICP services in China, but it was verifiably true that MSFT didn't (at least the last time I checked) serve Hotmail from inside the PRC.
PRC jurisdiction doesn't apply to services that are run outside of the PRC. If Hotmail or Gmail isn't served in Iran, neither MSF nor Google will respond to an Iranian government demand for information about a subscriber. Yahoo has apparently decided to offer email from inside the PRC, meaning that it had to comply with PRC rulings.
The MSFT/Hotmail experience demonstrates that the PRC authoriities have (so far) respected this jurisdictional line on a service-by-service basis, meaning that MSFT's OS software operation in China wasn't interpreted to mean that Hotmail (a separate US service) was subject to PRC jurisdiction."