Human Rights Watch has a PDF of Wang's original Chinese court sentence via this page. Here is a summary of his case:
Beijing resident Wang Xiaoning (王小宁) was taken into custody by state security police on September 1, 2002, on suspicion of “inciting subversion.” Wang was charged with editing an online journal entitled “Free Forum for Political Reform” and using it to attack the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and advocate a multiparty political system, separation of powers, and general elections. He is also alleged to have used a false name to register Yahoo! email accounts and a Yahoo! Groups account, which he used to disseminate his political writings to hundreds of email addresses. Wang also used email to communicate with the leader of an overseas dissident political party, with whom he discussed the establishment of a new political party named the “Chinese Third Way Party.”
Among the evidence presented by the prosecution at Wang’s trial were account verification statements provided in the name of Yahoo! (Hong Kong) Holdings Ltd. This is the first known case in which information about a defendant in a political case was provided to Chinese authorities by a Yahoo! subsidiary. State security police also collected numerous instances of Wang’s writings that had been posted on websites both in China and overseas.
Wang and his defense attorneys did not dispute the facts as charged by the prosecution, but they did maintain that Wang’s actions did not constitute the crime of inciting subversion. On September 12, 2003, Wang was sentenced by the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court to 10 years in prison with subsequent deprivation of political rights for two years. He is due to be released from prison on August 31, 2012
Human Rights in China first reported of Wang's torture last year. He was sentenced in 2003 and the torture is reported to have happened between 2002 and 2004. HRIC writes:
Among the evidence against Wang cited in the judgment is information provided by Yahoo! Holdings (Hong Kong) Ltd. stating that Wang’s “aaabbbccc“ Yahoo! Group was set up using the mainland China-based email address email@example.com. Yahoo! Holdings (Hong Kong) Ltd. also confirmed that the email address firstname.lastname@example.org, through which Wang sent messages to the Group, was a mainland China-based account. The judgment does not indicate whether Yahoo! Holdings (Hong Kong) Ltd. or Yahoo! China (which is now operated by mainland-based Alibaba.com) provided specific information regarding Wang’s identity. The judgment also notes that in 2001, administrators of Wang’s mainland China-based Yahoo! Group noticed the political content of Wang’s writings and did not allow him to continue distribution through the Group. He then began distributing his journal by email to individual email addresses.
Of course, all the so-called "crimes" for which he is sentenced relate to the fact that he advocated the establishment of an opposition party, called for a multiparty system, and was actively trying to work and organize people toward such a goal. His right to carry out such activities peacefully is universally recognized.
Put aside the fact that defining his activities as a "crime" is a human rights violation in the first place. One thing that the sentence document does not make clear is whether Yahoo! actually helped Chinese investigators to link these Yahoo! accounts to Wang's physical identity. Evidence against Wang also includes documents found in a search of his home. What exactly led investigators to his home we do not know from the sentencing document.
However this article quotes Wang's wife as saying: "If Yahoo did not give out this information, then the Chinese government would not be able to sentence him.''
The other question is whether Yahoo! was actually responding to a legally binding, mandatory request for information or whether it was given to authorities more casually. Yu's attorney says Yahoo! handed over the information voluntarily. The SF Chronicle quoted attorney Morton Sklar as saying: "There's no way that Yahoo, as an American corporation, would not know that the record of China in human rights was highly questionable."
According to the SF Chronicle's report today, Yahoo! responded with regret and concern about Chinese human rights practices, but:
Yahoo spokesman Jim Cullinan said the company turns over information to the Chinese government only under "threat of civil and criminal penalties.''
"It's a part of doing business in China,'' Cullinan said. He said Chinese authorities who demand the identities of Internet users don't specify what they're investigating, and Yahoo has no way of knowing whether any information it provides has led to repression.
If it is true that Yahoo! handed over the information without a subpoena or court order, the above statement starts to look a little disingenuous. The problem is, who is going to be able to prove the facts of what actually happened between Chinese investigators and Yahoo!'s local employees in 2002 in China? If nobody can prove the facts one way or the other and if Yahoo! is not forthcoming with them will the case be thrown out due to lack of evidence? Yahoo! may then be legally off the hook, but they still look untrustworthy from the user's perspective.
Yahoo is also saying that the job of changing China's human rights behavior lies with the U.S. state department and diplomats, not businesspeople. They argue that their engagement with China and the development of the Chinese Internet is still benefitting the Chinese people, although a comparison by Human Rights Watch of Yahoo!'s China practices with domestically run Chinese internet services found no significant difference. Thus the argument that Chinese people are better off with Yahoo! than without has yet to be supported with any evidence.
Here is what I wish Yahoo! would do:
- Yahoo! should stop making arguments that make it sound as though they find the torture and prison sentences of political dissidents to be an acceptable price to pay for the eventual benefits that Yahoo!'s services are expected to bring to Chinese Internet users. Such arguments are not exactly going to convince individual users that they should trust Yahoo! - who wants to be the next bit of collateral damage so that Yahoo! can secure its spot in information history?
- If Yahoo! wants to regain credibility and convince users that it cares about their rights, it should be honest and open about what really happened. If the information was handed over under casual, voluntary circumstances, they should admit that and publicly outline steps being taken to prevent hand-over of user information without a legally binding request. They should do so even if they risk losing this lawsuit. Is not a tortured human life worth parting with a rather handsome sum of money?
- Further, Yahoo! needs to be more publicly honest about the fact that by making the decision to host e-mail in China, with user information hosted on servers inside the jurisdiction of the People's Republic of China, they have put themselves in an impossible position. Because they are required to comply with Chinese law when they host user information in China, they have made it basically impossible not to assist in human rights violation in which peaceful political organizing can be defined as a crime. They should acknowledge publicly that this is the case. And acknowledge that their decision to host e-mail in China was not sufficiently thought through. Otherwise, the implication remains that they think that human "collateral damage" is acceptable.
- They should acknowledge they have not done enough to educate Chinese users that the use of an American-branded e-mail service hosted in China provides no more protection from Chinese law enforcement than a Chinese service.
- Yahoo! should take the lead among Internet service companies to educate users about exactly how much privacy and anonymity they do and do not have when using their various services - in any country. Fine print user agreements are not sufficient, especially in jurisdictions where political opposition can be prosecuted as a crime.
This is a global issue. The worst consequences so far have played out in China, but companies are under pressure by governments all over the world - even in democracies. Yahoo! headquarters should engage in frank and honest public discussions about the position it and most Internet companies find themselves in: They are caught between their users' needs and interests, on one hand, and the interests/demands of governments on the other. They need to convince us that they won't sell their users out. So far, their public responses have not convinced me.
The fact that they are engaging in a process to discuss corporate principles for privacy and free expression and the money they're putting into academic research are efforts to convince us that they care. But until Yahoo! demonstrates publicly how these moves have actually translated into specific changes of company operations that clearly strengthen the protection of users' rights and interests, has anything actually changed as far as the user is concerned?