Chinese journalist serving 10-year sentence for sending email

| Mon Feb. 6, 2006 9:34 PM EST

Shi Tao, a Chinese journalist, wrote for Dangdai Shang Bao (Contemporary Business News), a Chinese Daily. On April 30, he was convicted of sending foreign-based websites the text of an internal message that the Chinese government had sent to his newspaper to warn journalists of possible unrest that could result from the return of certain dissidents on the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Shi concurs that he sent the email, but denies that he is guilty of "illegally providing state secrets to foreign entitites." He has been sentenced to ten years in prison.

Shi's case is of interest, not only because he is a journalist, but because the Chinese government obtained his email from Yahoo!. Here is part of Yahoo!'s response to a letter from Amnesty International:

Yahoo! Hong Kong, our subsidiary in Hong Kong, was not involved in any way in the disclosure of Shi Tao's information to the PRC authorities. In this specific case, the PRC government ordered Yahoo! China to provide user information and Yahoo! China complied with applicable PRC law. Neither Yahoo! Hong Kong nor any other Yahoo! subsidiary would respond to a PRC law enforcement request, other than in accordance with their own applicable laws. ...

Yahoo! China received a valid and legal demand for information from PRC law enforcement authorities according to applicable PRC laws and the procedures we had established with Chinese law enforcement officials. As in most jurisdictions, including the United States, the Government of China is not required to inform service providers why they are seeking certain information and typically does not do so.

According to Reporters without borders, Yahoo! Holdings (Hong Kong) is subject to Hong Kong legislation, which does not spell out the responsibilities of companies providing email services in this type of situation. However, the mail servers appear to be located on the Chinese mainland, which would explain the existence of a court order from China.

Both Amnesty International and Reporters without borders have questioned to what degree Yahoo!'s desire for Chinese business has blurred the company's commitment to ethical responsibilities. Internet companies, including both Yahoo! and Google, have established self-censoring search engines in China