Note: I posted a version of this comment on The BOBs Blog earlier today.
I see in today's Washington Post that Yahoo Founder Jerry Yang has defended Yahoo's decision to turn over information to Chinese security forces that helped a Chinese reporter get 10 years in prison. If you use a Yahoo! email account and are not familiar with the case of Chinese Journalist Shi Tao, then I suggest you read this article by Julian Pain of Reporters Without Borders: "Shame on Yahoo: Information provided by Yahoo!helped journalist Shi Tao get 10 years in prison." (Note: It's the second story on the page).
Shi's crime? Here's a one-sentence summary of what happened, courtesy of The Christian Science Monitor: Shi was "convicted for e-mailing comments made in a newspaper staff meeting to a democracy group in New York, and whose IP Internet address was given to Chinese officials by Yahoo."
Yahoo! Founder Yang's answers, provided during an internet forum in Hangzhou, are cold comfort to Yahoo email users who live within China--and to the consciences of those who live without the threat of Chinese security forces reading their emails. Here's a taster from the Post:
Reporters Without Borders (an international group devoted to the freedom of the press) appealed to former President Bill Clinton with this letter but I see from The AP's story by Elaine Kurtenbach, courtesy of BusinessWeek Online, that it had little effect:
"New York-based Human Rights in China and the Paris-based international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders sent an open letter addressed to former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who was a keynote speaker at the Internet forum, urging him to bring up Shi's case during his visit to China. But Clinton only alluded to the risks faced by Internet users targeted by the authorities for whatever reason. "The Internet, no matter what political system a country has, and our political system is different from yours, the Internet is having significant political and social consequences and they cannot be erased," he said. "The political system's limits on freedom of speech ... have not seemed to have any adverse consequences on e-commerce," he said. "It's something you'll all have to watch and see your way through," he said."
As always in the case of China, I look to Rebecca MacKinnon who has, or course, been following Shi's case. On Wednesday MacKinnon essentially called for a boycott, and then Thursday she fingered (some of the) business decisions Yahoo! and others have made that paint them into a corner:
"In Shi Tao's case, Yahoo! had to be evil in order to be legal.
"But as the discussion on my last post reveals, Yahoo! had a choice. It chose to provide an e-mail service hosted on servers based inside China, making itself subject to Chinese legal jurisdiction. It didn't have to do that. It could have provided a service hosted offshore only. If Shi Tao's email account had been hosted on servers outside of China, Yahoo! wouldn't have been legally obligated to hand over his information.
"When providing information and communications services in countries where political dissent is illegal, companies like Yahoo! need to ask themselves tough questions about whether they can realistically operate "within the laws, regulations and customs of the country in which they are based" while still upholding their ethical values. Assuming they have some. Even if they don't, they must recognize that helping put dissidents in jail is pretty bad for the corporate image. Is the damage to Yahoo!'s reputation, credibility, and consumer trust really worth whatever money they're making on that Chinese-language e-mail service?
"I don't think so."
Other bloggers -- such as EastSouthWestNorth obviously disagree with MacKinnon.
My question is when, whether and how American email consumers will respond to the case of Shi Tao. Will Yahoo's reputation, credibility and consumer trust truly be damaged, a la Nike after the Vietnam sweat-shop debacle? Will we see a global community coalesce around privacy rights and freedom of speech for individual email users in the next decade, particularly as Chinese Internet consumers gain numbers and, hopefully, power? Will the American privacy movement continue to gain momentum or stall, now that both the House and Senate have renewed a version of The Patriot Act? Or will each individual Web consumer have to reinvent the value online privacy for themselves -- tantamount to child care for working parents?
We know how well that worked.
- Angry Chinese Blogger has links to Chinese and English versions of the verdict and the document Tao was convicted for transmitting. Hat-tip: Rconversations, EastSouthNorthWest, GlobalVoices, others.