Yahoo Role Documented in Chinese Trial
By JOSEPH KAHN
BEIJING, Sept. 7 - Yahoo, the Internet search company, provided information last year that helped authorities in China convict a Chinese journalist for leaking state secrets to a foreign Web site, court documents show.
The journalist, Shi Tao, was sentenced to 10 years in prison this June for sending to a Chinese-language Web site based in New York an anonymous posting that authorities said contained state secrets. His posting summarized a communication from Communist Party authorities to media outlets around the country.
Mr. Shi's case has become a prominent symbol of the recent tightening of media controls in the one-party state, where authorities often punish outspoken journalists for releasing information deemed secret.
According to the court documents, Yahoo provided records that showed that Mr. Shi used a computer at his workplace, Contemporary Business News in Changsha, late in the evening of April 20, 2004, to gain access to his Yahoo e-mail account. Authorities say the offending e-mail message was sent to the New York Web site from that e-mail account around that time, according to people involved in Mr. Shi's defense.
Yahoo's role in the prosecution of Mr. Shi was first reported in July by Boxun, a Web site run by overseas Chinese, and was repeated Tuesday by Reporters Without Borders, a media watchdog group. Yahoo declined to comment on the matter on Wednesday, though it did issue a statement noting, "Just like any other global company, Yahoo must ensure that its local country sites must operate within the laws, regulations and customs of the country in which they are based."
Yahoo, Microsoft, Google, Cisco and other Internet service and equipment providers have come under scrutiny for helping China to monitor and censor content available to the country's 100 million Internet users.
Internet specialists here say that Google and Yahoo, for example, routinely exclude links to sensitive political or religious sites from searches conducted in mainland China.
Chinese journalists say the information that Mr. Shi, a 37-year-old journalist and democracy advocate, provided to the New York Web site, called Democracy Forum, was already widely circulated. It involved routine instructions on how officials must safeguard social stability during the 15th anniversary of the June 4, 1989, democracy movement.
His case alarmed critics of the Chinese government because his posting did not reveal the sender or the source of the information. That meant that the investigation, conducted by the Beijing branch of the elite State Security Bureau, began with no more than an anonymous message on a United States-based Web site to go on.
Using investigative techniques that were not revealed in the course of Mr. Shi's trial, State Security officials pinpointed the Chinese source of the message, according to individuals involved in Mr. Shi's defense. They asked to remain anonymous because evidence introduced in Mr. Shi's trial was declared secret.
How investigators traced the message - for example, by gaining access to the computers at Democracy Forum in New York, or by retroactively searching the content of e-mail that passed through China's Internet servers - was presented to judges in a secret addendum to the prosecution's evidence. Mr. Shi's defense lawyers did not have access to that evidence, the people said.
Yahoo's role remains murky, in part because the company has declined to talk about its cooperation with authorities in the case.
It is unclear whether the company responded voluntarily to a request from Beijing State Security, or provided data only when confronted with a court order.
Whether the information Yahoo provided State Security proved critical in identifying Mr. Shi, or merely supplementary to the case, also remains unclear. This is because it is not known whether the initial intelligence Beijing State Security gathered identified Mr. Shi personally, or merely the Internet access point, or I.P. address, where the e-mail message to Democracy Forum originated.
If officials could trace the message only as far as an I.P. address or a Yahoo e-mail account, then it is possible that Yahoo's help proved crucial in linking the message to Mr. Shi. Contemporary Business News of Changsha, Mr. Shi's employer, had a single I.P. address shared by many employees, the court documents show.
But people involved in Mr. Shi's defense said Yahoo might have played a less pivotal role, providing supplementary evidence to demonstrate how and when Mr. Shi transmitted the information after authorities had already identified Mr. Shi as the culprit.
After his arrest in November 2004, Mr. Shi confessed to sending the information to Democracy Forum, court documents say. Even with a confession, however, prosecutors are generally obliged to provide detailed evidence that shows how a suspect committed the crime.
Critics say Yahoo crossed a line by helping authorities prosecute the journalist, even if the company merely responded to a court order.
"Does the fact that this corporation operates under Chinese law free it from all ethical considerations?" Reporters Without Borders said in a statement. "How far will it go to please Beijing?"
Yahoo and most of its rivals have chosen to cooperate with Chinese authorities rather than risk losing access to the country's fast-growing online marketplace.
Just last month, Yahoo paid $1 billion for a 40 percent stake in China biggest online commerce firm, Alibaba.com, in a deal in which Alibaba will take over operation of Yahoo's China operations. Yahoo has pursued other investments in China in recent years, some of which were blocked by the authorities on the grounds of national security, according to industry specialists in Beijing.
Saul Hansell contributed reporting from New York for this article.
* Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company