Yahoo! executives say one thing in public, an official Chinese document says something else. Oops.
I just discovered today that the Dui Hua Foundation, which does excellent, low-key work on Chinese human rights issues, has a blog. Last week they posted a full English translation (PDF) of a document that has surfaced recently on the web: the Beijing State Security Bureau's request to Yahoo!'s Beijing office for information about the e-mail account [email protected] That's the account used by Chinese journalist Shi Tao, who is now doing 10 years in jail for divulging state secrets.
The folks at Dui Hua say they've examined the document and believe it to be authentic. If it is indeed authentic, this document would seem to clear up any lingering questions about whether Yahoo!'s Hong Kong office was involved in handing over Shi Tao's account information.
But it also raises new questions. Here is what the document says (emphasis added):
Beijing State Security Bureau
Notice of Evidence Collection
 BJ State Sec. Ev. Coll. No. 02
Beijing Representative Office, Yahoo! (HK) Holdings Ltd.:
According to investigation, your office is in possession of the following items relating to a case of suspecting illegal provision of state secrets to foreign entities that is currently under investigation by our bureau. In accordance with Article 45 of the Criminal Procedure Law of the PRC, [these items] may be collected. The items for collection are:
Email account registration information for [email protected], all login times, corresponding IP addresses, and relevant email content from February 22, 2004 to present.
Beijing State Security Bureau (seal) April 22, 2004
So Yahoo!'s Beijing office was informed from the beginning that this was not an investigation into a potential murderer, thief, child pornographer, or terrorist, but somebody suspected of giving "state secrets" to foreigners. As Dui Hua's Joshua Rosenzweig says: "One does not have to be an expert in Chinese law to know that "state secrets" charges have often been used to punish political dissent in China."
Now here is what Yahoo! General Counsel Michael Callahan told a U.S. Congressional hearing on February 15, 2006 (emphasis added):
The Shi Tao case raises profound and troubling questions about basic human rights. Nevertheless, it is important to lay out the facts. When Yahoo! China in Beijing was required to provide information about the user, who we later learned was Shi Tao, we had no information about the nature of the investigation. Indeed, we were unaware of the particular facts surrounding the case until the news story emerged. Law enforcement agencies in China, the United States, and elsewhere typically do not explain to information technology companies or other businesses why they demand specific information regarding certain individuals. In many cases, Yahoo! does not know the real identity of individuals for whom governments request information, as very often our users subscribe to our services without using their real names.
Read the full testimony here (PDF).
Now we know that when Callahan said "we had no information about the nature of the investigation," he was not telling the truth.
What Yahoo! China's employees in Beijing might have done differently without getting themselves in trouble is an open question.
Still, the fact is that Callahan did not tell the truth to Congress. Was he was deliberately lying? Or are Yahoo!'s internal communications and record keeping just so bad that he didn't have full information from the Beijing office?
That makes me wonder: what else did the Beijing office do - or have knowledge of in relation to the case of Shi Tao and others who are now in jail - which Yahoo! execs are keeping mum about... if they even have any idea themselves?