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Chinese dissident e-mails: what did Yahoo know, and when did it know it?

Chinese dissident e-mails: what did Yahoo know, and when did it know it?

By Nate Anderson | Published: July 30, 2007 – 01:41PM CT

Chinese pro-democracy activist Shi Tao was sentenced to 10 years in prison back in 2004 after Yahoo turned over his e-mails to the Chinese government, but the company has publicly claimed that it had no information about the case when the government first demanded the e-mails. Now, an alleged copy of the official request for that information has surfaced, and it suggests that Yahoo did have at least some knowledge of what the case was about. Whether the company should have acted differently because of that is a matter for debate.

Human rights group Dui Hua has just published a translation of the Chinese government request to Yahoo, which asks for the “login times, corresponding IP addresses, and relevant e-mail content” from an account that Shi used at the time (Boing Boing’s coverage includes a massive selection of links for those who want more context.)

The “notice of evidence collection” also informs Yahoo that the investigation relates to “a case of suspecting illegal provision of state secrets to foreign entities,” and this is the point at which things get controversial. That’s because, as Yahoo’s general counsel told Congress last year when tech companies were called in for hearings, “we had no information about the nature of the investigation.”

Dui Hua’s Joshua Rosenzweig believes this is damning evidence. “This new documentation suggests that Yahoo!’s Beijing office was at least aware of the general nature of the crime being investigated in the Shi Tao case,” he said in a statement, “even if it was unaware of the specific circumstances or the name of the individual involved. 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.”

Did Yahoo lie before Congress? It depends what “no information” means. While Yahoo clearly did know that the case was about state secrets (assuming the notice is genuine), the notice offered no other details. Should Yahoo have been willing to defy the government over a matter on which it had so little information? Not according to Yahoo. The company has claimed repeatedly that Chinese Internet users are better off with US companies operating in China, even when that means cooperating with some dodgy censorship practices and the occasional political prosecution, and it has battled shareholder efforts to make it change its ways.

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