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Yahoo!, the Shi Tao Case, and lessons for corporate social responsibility


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Slides from an academic paper presentation. Paper at:">Download YahooShiTaoLessons.pdf
ABSTRACT: In 2005, Chinese journalist Shi Tao was convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison for leaking state secrets abroad. Key evidence cited in Chinese court documents included information about Shi’s account supplied by Yahoo! to the Chinese State Security Bureau. Condemnation by human rights groups and investors, U.S. congressional hearings, a Hong Kong government investigation, and a U.S. lawsuit followed. This paper documents the core facts, events, issues and debates involved. The Shi Tao case highlights the complex challenges of corporate social responsibility for Internet and telecommunications companies: They are caught between demands of governments on one hand and rights of users on the other – not only in authoritarian countries such as China but in virtually all countries around the world. While there are no simple or quick solutions, Internet and telecoms companies seeking to establish trustworthy reputations across a global customer base cannot afford to ignore the human rights implications of their business practices. Users and investors have a right to demand that user rights be respected. If companies fail to respect user rights, the need to develop non-commercial, grassroots alternatives will become increasingly important if privacy and free expression are to be possible anywhere.

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Yahoo!, the Shi Tao Case, and lessons for corporate social responsibility

  1. Yahoo!, Shi Tao, and the lessons for corporate social responsibility Rebecca MacKinnon Assistant Professor, Journalism & Media Studies Ctr, University of Hong Kong Email: [email_address] Weblog: This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License. To view a copy of this license, visit or send a letter to Creative Commons, 171 Second Street, Suite 300, San Francisco, California, 94105, USA.
  2. Facts of Shi Tao’s case (1) <ul><li>April 20, 2004: attended meeting, took notes on internal document about how press should prevent unrest during June 4th anniversary period </li></ul><ul><li>That night, he writes up his notes on his office computer and sends them to a New York-based editor of Minzhu Luntan , using the e-mail account [email_address] </li></ul><ul><li>At his request, his summary of the internal directive is published on Minzhu Luntan , under the name “198964” </li></ul>
  3. Facts of Shi Tao’s case (2) <ul><li>On April 22nd: Beijing State Security Bureau requests all e-mail account information and e-mail contents for [email_address] </li></ul><ul><li>Yahoo! Beijing office provides all requested information immediately. </li></ul><ul><li>November 23, 2004: Shi is detained </li></ul><ul><li>December 14: Shi is formally arrested </li></ul>
  4. Facts of Shi Tao’s Case (3) <ul><li>March 11, 2005: two-hour trial </li></ul><ul><li>April 27, 2005: sentenced to 10 years in prison for providing state secrets overseas. </li></ul><ul><li>June 2, 2005: Shi Tao’s appeal rejected </li></ul><ul><li>September 6, 2005: copy of verdict, including mention of evidence supplied by Yahoo!, published on the Internet by Reporters Without Borders. </li></ul><ul><li>Public condemnation of Yahoo! doesn’t stop after that… </li></ul>
  5. Yahoo’s response: <ul><li>Following Chinese law - had no choice </li></ul><ul><li>“ No knowledge” of the nature of the case under investigation when asked for info (later acknowledged had known it was a “state secrets” investigation) </li></ul><ul><li>In the long run, more Chinese people benefit from Yahoo!’s engagement than are hurt (collateral damage argument) </li></ul>
  6. <ul><li>CONDEMNATION: </li></ul><ul><li>Amnesty International </li></ul><ul><li>Human Rights Watch </li></ul><ul><li>Reporters Without Borders </li></ul>Shi Tao: Jailed 10 years with Yahoo!’s help.
  7. Yahoo! legally “off the hook” <ul><li>Shi Tao “agreed” to terms of service </li></ul><ul><li>Yahoo! is required to follow local law in local jurisdiction </li></ul>
  8. What could Yahoo! have done differently? <ul><li>Option 1: Corporate “civil disobedience” in cases that seem to involve dissidents (choice: risk local employees or leave); </li></ul><ul><li>Option 2: Don’t put user e-mail data on servers inside PRC; </li></ul><ul><li>Option 3: Moral obligation to go beyond legalistic terms of service: Better inform users about risks. </li></ul>
  9. Different companies, different choices <ul><li>Yahoo!: e-mail, blogs, and search in PRC </li></ul><ul><li>MSN: blogs and search, no e-mail </li></ul><ul><li>Google: search only, no e-mail or blogs </li></ul>
  10. Some highlights of proposed Global Online Freedom Act <ul><li>State Dept “Office of Internet Freedom” makes list of “Internet Restricting Countries” </li></ul><ul><li>US Companies prohibited from disclosing user info to authorities in those countries except for “legitimate foreign law enforcement purposes” (as determined by D.O.J.) </li></ul><ul><li>Companies must report all the terms they are required to censor and other requirements given to them by foreign governments, etc. </li></ul>
  11. Shareholder activism growing <ul><li>Cisco - Boston Common </li></ul><ul><li>Yahoo! - New York City pension funds </li></ul><ul><li>Google - New York City pension funds </li></ul><ul><li>2005 pledge by socially responsible investment funds </li></ul>
  12. “Corporate Social Responsibility” <ul><li>Environment </li></ul><ul><li>Labor </li></ul><ul><li>Community support </li></ul><ul><li>NEW: privacy and free expression </li></ul>
  13. What do companies do… when users’ rights & interests… and host government demands conflict? Government Company User
  14. Alternative: Global voluntary corporate code of conduct <ul><li>Maximum possible transparency with users about how and why material is being censored, and under what circumstances information could be shared with authorities </li></ul><ul><li>Agree to follow common set of procedures when faced with laws, regulations, and government requests for censorship or handover of user information </li></ul>
  15. Lessons for Civil Society? <ul><li>PUBLIC EDUCATION: We must do a much better job at educating ourselves and the public so people can make informed choices when using information services </li></ul><ul><li>GRASSROOTS SPACES: Perhaps we must never rely on commercial IT services alone if we want to make sure that some spaces for free speech and privacy are always preserved for those who need them most. </li></ul>