More documents have surfaced showing that Yahoo! employees knew that they were handling political cases when they received information requests from Chinese authorities on at least two people now doing serious jailtime.
This is contrary to previous claims by Yahoo! that "we had no information about the nature of the investigation." Note that Yahoo! insists that it is wrong to say they were lying, in spite of that statement made to Congress last year which makes it seem like they were.
This week's documents, also courtesy of the DuiHua Foundation, contain new details from the case of Wang Xiaoning, also doing ten years, for "inciting subversion." The folks at Duihua have examined the new documents, judged them to be authentic, and uploaded the originals plus translations here.
Click here for a PDF containing two notices presented to Yahoo! in April and August 2002 by the Beijing State Security Bureau. The notices request account, registration, and login information for a total of three Yahoo! China e-mail addresses, "all of which appear to have been provided on that same day by Yahoo!’s Beijing office," according to DuiHua.
As DuiHua points out: "Both of the police notices clearly state “suspected inciting subversion” as the cause of the investigation." So Yahoo! China clearly knew that this was a political case.
Click here for a PDF containing a cover letter from Yahoo!'s Beijing office, plus account information, plus the text of one of 23 pages of e-mails submitted. Here is what the e-mail says:
We hereby notify you that because hotmaiil.com's download speed is too slow and other reasons, the Chinese Third Way Party has decided to cease using firstname.lastname@example.org [and] email@example.com and will from now on use firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our party has already released four documents:
1. "Follow the third Way, Establish the Third Political Party" (21,692 characters)
2. Chinese Third Way Party: "Ten Proposals for Completing the Great Mission of Unifying China" (5,429 characters)
3. Chinese Third Way Party Recommends an Important Article (Shi Cheng, "Beware the Chinese Communists Fake Political Reforms- Critiquing Pan Yue's "Thoughts on teh Transition from Revolutionary Party to Ruling Party"" (18,261 characters)
4. Message from the Director of the Chinese Third Way Party: "Call on the Left Wing of the Chinese Communist Party to Follow Democracy, Support the Left Wing of the Chinese Communist Party in Establishing an Independent Party" (2,412 characters)
In two days, we will release the Chinese Third Way Party's "Twenty Proposals for Solving China's Extremely Serious Rural Problems (Farmers, Rural Villages, Agriculture)" (12,000 characters).
For that and other such communications, Wang Xiaoning is ten years in the slammer.
It would be interesting to see all the other e-mails in the original Chinese.
Shi Tao's mother has joined Wang Xiaoning's wife in a U.S. lawsuit against Yahoo! for its role in aiding and abetting these men's imprisonment. Back when the lawsuit was launched I pointed out it's still unclear in Wang Xiaoning's case whether Wang would have gone to jail anyway even without Yahoo!'s assistance, because the Chinese sentencing document cited the search of his computer as one of the major sources of evidence. We still don't know whether the search of his home and computer happened before or after Yahoo! handed over the information. One outstanding question has now been resolved: under what circumstances Yahoo! employees handed over the information. We now know that they did so in response to official written police orders. This article cites the lawsuit's attorney saying that the documents were handed over voluntarily without a court order or subpoena. The new documents prove that claim to be false.
Ars Technica has an article about the last week's documents in which author Nate Anderson points out that, Yahoo!'s obfuscation or lack of clarity or whatever you want to call it aside, "whether the company should have acted differently because of that is a matter for debate." His piece concludes:
Did Yahoo lie before Congress? It depends what "no information" means. While Yahoo clearly did know that the case was about state secrets (assuming the notice is genuine), the notice offered no other details. Should Yahoo have been willing to defy the government over a matter on which it had so little information? Not according to Yahoo. The company has claimed repeatedly that Chinese Internet users are better off with US companies operating in China, even when that means cooperating with some dodgy censorship practices and the occasional political prosecution, and it has battled shareholder efforts to make it change its ways.
Roland Soong over at EastSouthWestNorth has a long blog post ranting against Yahoo!'s critics for being unrealistic and counter-productive. As he sees it, Yahoo! had three choices: comply (as it did), resist (and likely lose their business license), or pull out of China. While option one is bad, he doesn't think options two and three are useful either. He thinks that "Yahoo! trashing" is a waste of time and won't do much to change things in China given Yahoo!'s paltry market share there. He concludes:
If freedom of speech on the Chinese Internet is ever to come about, it will not be handed over to them because of U.S. Congressional actions against American corporations. The Chinese people will fight and obtain that freedom for themselves through struggling on local issues. Those issues may be seemingly trivial, but we are talking about accumulation and aggregation. The western world can help by focusing on such cases because international attention always helps in the sense that an allegedly rising and proud nation would never want to be caught with exhibiting uncivilized behavior. The war will not be won by a single nationwide strike. Instead, this is about the consecutive small victories at the local level.
I don't think it is meaningless to push companies like Yahoo! to be more mindful of the human rights situations they will face before they decide whether or not to open a particular product or service in any given market. There is a reason Microsoft never introduced a localized Chinese Hotmail and why Google hasn't introduced a local Chinese Gmail. Because they don't want Shi Taos and Wang Xiaonings on their hands. Companies can make choices about how they engage in a market and what services are appropriate given the political situation.
Let me emphasize: this is not about foreigners changing China. Or it isn't for me. This is about how companies interact with governments everywhere and how individual users lose out in the process. Does Yahoo!'s attitude towards its Chinese users say something about its attitude towards American users' privacy? Should companies be doing a much better job - beyond obscure terms-of-service nobody reads - to educate their users about just how NOT private their info is? Would Wang Xiaoning have decided not to use a yahoo.cn account for his opposition party activities if there had been much clearer information about what jurisdiction his data was going to be in and who had the right to view it? A lot of people including many company executives think the answer is "yes," which is why Yahoo!, Google, Microsoft, Vodaphone, and others are sitting round the table with human rights groups to develop global corporate principles for freedom of speech and privacy.
Internet and telecoms companies should handle every government information request anywhere with a mind to the possibility all the documents related to that case could leak one day - or politics could change and secret police archives could suddenly become open to the public. That's one reason I think it's great that these documents have come out. Also, it's always better to have more concrete facts about these cases - facts which, mind you, have proven Yahoo!'s critics not to be 100% right all the time either.