Shi Tao, Yahoo, and China

The event that has garnered the most attention from critics of Internet Content Providers (ICPs) in China has been the case of Shi Tao, a 37 year old Chinese journalist who, in 2004, was found by Chinese courts to have disclosed state secrets by reporting the Communist Party's intention to limit media reports about the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.[1]

Shi Tao apparently took notes on a memorandum to be enforced by Chinese media agencies entitled "A Notice Regarding Current Stabilizing Work" that included recommendations that journalists not report on commemorations or other prodemocracy events at the time of the anniversary. Shi Tao sent details of this memorandum to the "Democracy Forum" under a pseudonym that was subsequently linked to Shi Tao after Yahoo provided the Chinese government the Internet protocol (IP) address from which the e-mails were sent. This established that Shi Tao's personal e-mail account was accessed by a computer located in the news office of his employer, Contemporary Business News.[2]

Once this connection was verified, the Chinese authorities also requested the content of Shi Tao's communications with the "Democracy Forum" and used this as evidence in the trial where he was convicted of "divulging state secrets abroad." He is now serving a 10-year prison sentence.

In response to the Shi Tao case, Yahoo took the official position that their managers are required to adhere to the laws, regulations, and customs of the country in which they are based. In his testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives, Senior Vice President Michael Callahan asserted that Yahoo had no option but to conform to the requests made by Chinese law enforcement agencies for the IP addresses and user data that were eventually used in Shi Tao's case. In response to criticisms leveled by human rights organizations, Yahoo has claimed that it hands over such private information only when there are specific, targeted requests made through official Chinese government channels, e.g., law enforcement agencies or courts. They also asserted that they have no way of knowing the nature of the investigations and whether there are any reliable appeal procedures for rejecting a government request for information.”

In 2007, Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang “expressed great remorse for the company’s actions” in this matter, and offered an apology to Shi Tao’s mother. The company has not taken any decisive measures to inform China’s government that censorship will not be tolerated. [3] Shi Tao remains in prison for exercising his right to freedom of expression, which is protected in international law and the Chinese constitution.

Adapted from Jeffrey D. Smith, “Internet Content Providers and Complicity in Human Rights Abuse,” in Ethical Theory and Business 8th Edition, edited by Beauchamp, Bowie, and Arnold, (New Jersey: Pearson, 2009), 442-455.

[1] "Yahoo 'Helped Jail China Writer'," BBC News, September 7, 2Human Rights Watch, "Race to the Bottom," pp. 107-8.005. Retrieved from 4221538.stm on October 1, 2006.

[2] Human Rights Watch, "Race to the Bottom," pp. 107-8.

[3] “Imprisoned for Peaceful Expression,” Amnesty International. Retrieved from on July 14, 2012.