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Yahoo! In The Hot Seat With Free Press Advocates

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Reporters Without Borders is accusing Yahoo! of providing information to the Chinese government to procure the conviction of a Hong Kong journalist for leaking state secrets to foreign websites.

On April 30, Chinese journalist Shi Tao, of the daily business newspaper Dangdai Shang Bao, was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison after the text of an email showed he had provided foreign websites the content of a message from the government warning journalists about coverage of the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF-Reporters Sans Frontiers), after combing the text of the verdict in the case, says that Yahoo! Holdings Hong Kong provided Chinese authorities with the information to identify and convict Shi Tao.

RSF has been vigilant in calling out search engines for ethical quandaries related to their desire to tap the lucrative Chinese market. And Yahoo!’s alleged infringement, they say, is a serious ethical issue, a compromise the search company was willing to forfeit to do business there.

“Yahoo! appears to be willing to go to any lengths to gain shares of the Chinese market… It is one thing to turn a blind eye to the Chinese government’s abuses and it is quite another thing to collaborate,” said the free press organization. Yahoo! has not issued comment on the matter.

Google, also, has come under criticism from RSF recently for bending to the weight of the Chinese government. When Google announced the opening of research offices in Beijing, China allowed the search company to set up if certain speech guidelines were followed. RSF was incensed at the possibility that Google would allow the censorship.

“We simply ask you to reject self-censorship. If the Chinese authorities want to block access to certain websites, they must do it themselves. Indeed, they do block many sites. But we would find it extremely disturbing if you yourselves were to participate in the Chinese government’s policy of suppressing press freedom,” pleaded RSF.

Google’s ethics department issued a statement on the matter.

“In this case it is less than two percent of Chinese news sources. On balance we believe that having a service with links that work and omits a fractional number is better than having a service that is not available at all. It was a difficult tradeoff for us to make, but the one we felt ultimately serves the best interests of our users located in China,” the Google Team said.

Doing business in China comes with the cost of dealing with pressures from the Chinese government. The communist state regulates the information available to its citizens, “protecting” them from “harmful” content. Words like “democracy” and “freedom,” demonstration,” “democratic movement,” and Taiwan independence,” are considered “anti-communist,” and Chinese content filters disallow access to any news source or website containing such “forbidden speech.”

All three of the major search engines, Google, Yahoo!, and MSN, engage in self-censorship.

“China actually shut us down a couple of times,” said Google honcho Sergey Brin in an interview with Playboy Magazine. He added that popular demand for the search service in China led to the government re-enabled their operations.

By the end of 2005, China is expected to have 125 million Internet users, second only to the United States with 200 million.

Yahoo! In The Hot Seat With Free Press Advocates
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