Yahoo! aids jailing of second Chinese dissident

Yahoo! is coming under fire after being accused of providing information to the Chinese authorities, which led to the imprisonment of a second Chinese dissident.

Yahoo! hit the headlines last year after it was accused of providing information to the Chinese authorities that led to the jailing of dissident Shi Tao for ten years.

Now, however, the search engine stands accused of handing over data records that lead to the imprisonment of a second cyberdissident Li Zhi, who was given an eight year prison sentence in December 2003.

The human rights group, Reporters Without Borders, is now trying to pressure Yahoo! to supply a list of all cyberdissidents it has provided data on, beginning with 81 people in China that the press freedom organization is currently campaigning for.

These latest revelations add to the growing controversy surrounding the actions of western Internet companies in China. Microsoft’s MSN, Google and Yahoo! have all drawn fire from political activists and human rights groups for censorship designed to appease the Chinese authorities.

The companies argue they have no choice but this, of course, is not strictly true. The reality is that it is a choice the companies do not wish to make as pulling out of China would mean angering shareholders and potentially letting rivals gain a headstart in a potentially lucrative market. Shareholders first, Chinese citizens second.

But the argument is slightly more complex. Google, for example, argues that, although they have agreed to censor listings sensitive to the authorities on its local Chinese version, this is better than not having a presence at all.

Over time, the Chinese government, through the gradual drip, drip of influence and pressure, may be convinced that the Internet does not present a threat to its one party existence and the Googles and Microsofts will be there ready to exploit any chink in the authorities’ control.

Human rights groups remain unconvinced and are pressing for legislation establishing a code of conduct for Internet companies dealing with countries named as repressive in annual US State Department human rights reports. After all, a similar argument to that of the Internet companies has been used on a general level by foreign companies investing in Myanmar (formerly Burma) but has had a negligible impact on the military dictatorship.

The US House of Representatives Committee on International Relations will hold a hearing on February 15 about the ethical responsibilities of Internet firms. Yahoo!, along with Google, Microsoft and Cisco have been invited to attend. Their arguments should make interesting reading.