Report: Yahoo helped jail another Chinese 'net dissident, Li Zhi

Human rights group Reporters Without Borders is reporting that Yahoo! provided Chinese authorities with personally identifying data on yet another of its customers in China. Li Zhi, a 35-year-old resident of Sichuan province, used what he believed to be an anonymous Yahoo account to express his opinions on message boards and chatrooms, and was accused of communicating online with overseas dissidents.

The data Yahoo gave authorities led to his imprisonment for eight years, says RSF — that would be the second such case involving Yahoo in less than a year (Link to previous Boing Boing posts about Shi Tao, the Chinese journalist jailed for ten years with Yahoo's help).

A hearing on the ethical responsibilities of Internet firms is scheduled to take place before the House Committee on International Relations on February 15 — and Yahoo has been invited to attend.

Snip from RSF's statement:

[RSF called] on Yahoo! to supply a list of all cyberdissidents it has provided data on, beginning with 81 people in China whose release the worldwide press freedom organization is currently campaigning for. It said it had discovered that Yahoo! customer and cyberdissident Li Zhi had been given his eight-year prison sentence in December 2003 based on electronic records provided by Yahoo. “How many more cases are we going to find?” it asked.

“We were sure the case of Shi Tao, who was jailed for 10 years last April on the basis of Yahoo-supplied data, was not the only one. Now we know Yahoo works regularly and efficiently with the Chinese police.

"The firm says it simply responds to requests from the authorities for data without ever knowing what it will be used for. But this argument no longer holds water. Yahoo certainly knew it was helping to arrest political dissidents and journalists, not just ordinary criminals. The company must answer for what it is doing at the US congressional hearing set for February 15."

The foreign-based news website posted on February 5 the plea of cyberdissident Li's lawyer, Zhang Sizhi, at an appeal court hearing in February 2004 (Link). Zhang said his client, who used the e-mail address 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.

Li, a 35-year-old ex-civil servant from the southwestern province of Dazhou, had been sentenced on December 10, 2003 to eight years in prison for "inciting subversion." He had been arrested the previous August after he criticized in online discussion groups and articles the corruption of local officials.

Local sources said Yahoo! Hong Kong's cooperation with the police was also mentioned in the court's verdict on Li. (…)49 cyberdissidents and 32 journalists are in prison in China for posting on the Internet articles and criticism of the authorities.

Link to Reporters Without Borders.

At Business 2.0, editor-at-large Erick Schonfeld has an analysis piece:

Regarding the Shi Tao case, [Yahoo spokeswoman Mary Osako] adds that Yahoo was "rigorous in our procedures and we only responded with what we were legally compelled to provide and nothing more." (Yahoo China, which was a division of Yahoo at the time of the alleged Li Zhi incident, is now operated by Alibaba, a Chinese Web company in which Yahoo owns a minority stake.)

Osako added: "The facts surrounding the Shi Tao case are distressing to Yahoo. We pride ourselves on helping citizens around the world search and access information. The choice is not whether to comply with law enforcement demands for information. The choice is whether to remain in the country. We believe that the Internet is a positive force in China."

That may very well be so. But where are the proof points of "positive force" that counterbalance what's been done to Shi Tao or Li Zhi? Each jailed dissident convicted based on information Yahoo (or Google or Microsoft or any American company) gave to the Chinese government belies the notion of the Internet ultimately being good for China.


John Battelle's Searchblog also has a post on this story, here.