Troubled Waters And No Bridge

Global Voices has a story (Hat Tip Financial Times and Simon World) about how China dissident Shi Tao has more than a little cause to be angry with Yahoo. Reporters Sans Frontiers, on analysing the text of the verdict in Shi Tao’s case (he was sentenced to 10 years in April for “divulging state secrets abroad”) , found that details supplied by Yahoo Holdings (Hong King) Ltd helped identify and convict him.

As Global Voices indicates Yahoo “provided the Chinese investigating organs with detailed information that apparently enabled them to link Shi’s personal e-mail account (on the Chinese Yahoo! service at and the specific message containing information treated as a “state secret” to the IP address of his computer”.

Now this raises a number of interesting issues.

Some of them are handled in the comments section of the Global Voices post itself. Someone calling himself NCY moderate understandably points out:

What is the difference, in substance not mechanics, between Yahoo turning this information over to the Chinese government and the US government retrieving similar information in this country either through court order or the PATRIOT act?

I mean, I think we all agree that the Chinese government is in many ways horrible, but if this company (presumably a local corporate division or subsidiary of Yahoo) is operating in China and the Chinese government orders them to turn it over, what should they do instead?

Really straight to the point I would have thought and Global Voice (and CNN ex) Rebecca McKinnon answers in similar vein:

You raise a very good question, NYCmoderate.
Yahoo!’s long terms of service (almost identical on the Chinese service) says:
“You acknowledge, consent and agree that Yahoo! may access, preserve, and disclose your account information and Content if required to do so by law or in a good faith belief that such access preservation or disclosure is reasonably necessary to: (a) comply with legal process; (b) enforce the TOS; (c) respond to claims that any Content violates the rights of third-parties; (d) respond to your requests for customer service; or (e) protect the rights, property, or personal safety of Yahoo!, its users and the public.”

“Thus Yahoo! can claim that Shi Tao should have known that his communications via Yahoo! email would not be protected, and that Yahoo! has never considered itself obligated to do so.”

“Very reasonable people can and do have widely divergent opinions about what companies like Yahoo! should be doing in such situations.”

“However one thing is clear: Human rights organizations should urge dissidents and people supplying overseas dissidents with sensitive information NEVER to use services such as the China-based Yahoo! email service. I wonder what would have happened if Shi Tao had used an e-mail service not hosted in China. I assume such a service would not be obligated to assist the Chinese authorities.”

I think Rebecca is basically right. Companies like Yahoo have few alternatives, and dissidents need to take adequate precautions. An entirely separate issue might be to ask just what kind of media exposure Yahoo offered to the Shi Tao case, given they have such a huge platform. I for one only got to hear of him due to the e-mail privacy fuss. To be clear: it is one thing complying with the law, it is another thing to let fear of losing future business persuade you to keep your mouth shut.

All of which surely goes to show that the internet is now a ‘mature technology’, and if anyone still had any lingering doubts, this week’s Australia decision on Kazaa should have finished them off.

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About Edward Hugh

Edward 'the bonobo is a Catalan economist of British extraction. After being born, brought-up and educated in the United Kingdom, Edward subsequently settled in Barcelona where he has now lived for over 15 years. As a consequence Edward considers himself to be "Catalan by adoption". He has also to some extent been "adopted by Catalonia", since throughout the current economic crisis he has been a constant voice on TV, radio and in the press arguing in favor of the need for some kind of internal devaluation if Spain wants to stay inside the Euro. By inclination he is a macro economist, but his obsession with trying to understand the economic impact of demographic changes has often taken him far from home, off and away from the more tranquil and placid pastures of the dismal science, into the bracken and thicket of demography, anthropology, biology, sociology and systems theory. All of which has lead him to ask himself whether Thomas Wolfe was not in fact right when he asserted that the fact of the matter is "you can never go home again".