The intrepid Roland Soong of the ESWN blog points out that Reporters Without Borders has gotten some facts wrong in its latest press release on Yahoo!’s role in the jailing of yet another Chinese dissident, Li Zhi – a release which I reproduced on my blog yesterday.
The foreign-based news website Boxun.com posted on February 5 the plea of cyberdissident Li’s lawyer, Zhang Sizhi, at an appeal court hearing in February 2004. Zhang said his client, who used the e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org and user-name lizhi34100, had been sentenced on the basis of data handed over by Yahoo ! Hong Kong in a report dated August 1, 2003.
Roland went through the whole original Chinese-language appeal document written by Li Zhi’s defense lawyer and has posted a full translation of it. He points out that the court case against Li was built on a body of evidence – of which it appears (at least from evidence submitted) that the information submitted by Yahoo was only one small part, and that there was also other key evidence handed over by the Chinese web portal Sina.com, plus what appears to have been an elaborate entrapment scheme, etc. Yet the RWB release says: “Yahoo ! customer and cyberdissident Li Zhi had been given his eight-year prison sentence in December 2003 based on electronic records provided by Yahoo.” And it was this release, widely circulated to the press and bloggers including myself which became the basis for numerous news reports over the past 24 hours and much condemnation of Yahoo!. Roland chastizes us all:
How many of these reporters actually paid attention to this primary document, of which multiple copies are available even inside China (e.g. at the website of the office of the defendant's lawyers)? Or perhaps they did read it and covered themselves by hedging in the language (e.g. the use of quotation marks, 'may have,' 'said to,' 'reportedly,' 'accused of' and so on). It is clear that nobody really cares about Li Zhi, who was naïve and gullible enough to be set up for an unnecessary crime, because they won't tell us the important aspect of the actual case according to his lawyers.
Roland is right. RWB made it sound like Li Zhi went to jail solely on the basis of Yahoo!’s help, and clearly the case is much more complicated. That’s extremely unfortunate. I must confess, in retrospect I shouldn’t have taken their interpretation at face value without going back and checking the original documents… which unlike most of the media who picked up the story, I can actually read.
That said, I don’t think Yahoo is off the hook at all. It still handed over user information to the Chinese police. The person who actually broke this story is dissident intellectual Liu Xiaobo, whose article on Chinese dissident site Boxun.com is partially translated by Xiao Qiang at China Digital Times. Liu quotes the following section of Li Zhi’s defense statement:
“ (2) On August 1, 2003, Yahoo Hong Kong Ltd provided to the public security agency Proof of the User's Information, 'provided relevant information about user lizhi340100,' and also explained 'for more detailed information, see attached documents. The Attached documents include the user's registered information and email from that account.' Therefore the part that can be considered evidence is the content of that attachment. But the attachment was not provided to the court. According to Yahoo's explanation, the content of the attachments not only reflects the situation of the mail exchanges, but also can have the function of “resolving some doubts.” Therefore, we hope the court will review the attachment. We certainly hope the defense lawyers will be allowed to review the documents so we can understand the full situation in order to defend our client. This is a matter of the rights of our client. Please remedy this situation.”
Liu did not claim, as RWB did, that Li Zhi went to jail as a result of Yahoo!’s collaboration. Instead he uses this document as evidence that: 这说明，早在2003年，雅虎就已经与中共警方密切合作了。 “This proves that as early as 2003, Yahoo was already closely cooperating with the Chinese police.” That is undeniably true. Roland concludes that since the evidence was not submitted in court, Yahoo’s role must have been “extraneous.” I don’t think we can be so sure. In my experience covering dissident trials in China in the 1990’s, often times critical evidence was not brought into court by the police - not because that evidence was extraneous or superflous, but because for whatever reason the police did not want the defence or the public to see it. Sometimes the police will use one method to actually catch the person but not submit materials related to that method in trial as evidence, and instead submit another set of evidence, perhaps even collected after they had already pinpointed their guy through some other means that is never made clear.
And while Yahoo! was indeed “just following the law,” I still stand by what I said yesterday: A company that cares about human rights should not put user data in jurisdictions where full compliance with the law makes collaboration with human rights violations inevitable. Either they did not think this through before setting up their Chinese e-mail service or they don't care.
Roland, I can’t speak for other journalists or bloggers, but I care about Li Zhi. But I really see no evidence that Yahoo! gives a damn about Li Zhi or about any of its Chinese users for that matter.
Which leads me to a very thoughtful post written today by my colleague Ethan Zuckerman. He points out that while Google has been getting tremendous flak for caving in and providing a censored search service at Google.cn, Yahoo! ranks much higher on the evil scale than Google.
He writes: “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 he points to a statement by Google’s Senior Policy Counsel Andrew McLaughlin, who writes: “…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.”
Google’s recognition is important: companies do have choices about what business they do or don’t conduct in China. Ethan continues:
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.
I agree with Ethan. I have never argued that Yahoo or Google or Microsoft should withdraw from doing business in China. I think they have a role to play in bringing the wealth of the world wide web to Chinese people whose lives are most definitely enriched as a result. However I do believe these companies could be making smarter choices about precisely which kinds of buiness they engage in, and in the specifics of how they conduct these businesses. It’s pretty interesting that MSN, after so much negative publicity over its censorship of Michael Anti, suddenly realized that there are a lot things about their behavior they can actually change. They are making efforts to be more transparent and to make it harder for their Chinese employees to be intimidated by authorities into assisting with censorship. I still don’t like the fact that they are helping to build and legitimize a business model for censorship in China, but one has to give them some credit. They are thinking about these issues and they are trying to figure out how to do less evil than they were doing before. They recognize that if they don’t do something user trust in their products and services will be diminished and they’ll continue to take P.R. hits in the U.S. As Ethan points out, Yahoo! has shown no evidence that it is making efforts to minimize the evil committed by its employees in the name of Chinese law. Let’s not allow RSF’s sloppy press release diminish this reality.