Did Yahoo Knowingly Turn Over a Customer to the Chinese Police?

Last week, members of the human rights organization Dui Hua Foundation presented evidence to Congress that Yahoo expeditiously complied with a Chinese state request for information on a citizen the government later sentenced to ten years' imprisonment for inciting rebellion. On Friday, Rep. Tom Lantos (D - Calif.) responded to Dui Hua's evidence by opening a formal investigation.

Yahoo's apparent compliance with China's request for e-mails from Wang Xiaoning's account may not have been illegal under US law. However, in the Washington Post last weekend, Rep. Lantos suggested that a Yahoo official's testimony before Congress in February 2006 may have been false. At that time, Yahoo General Counsel Michael Callahan suggested that, while Yahoo complied with the Chinese government's request, it had no knowledge of China's intentions - and perhaps no interest as well.

But the formal request obtained by Dui Hua suggests otherwise (PDF available here). "According to investigation, your office is in possession of the following items relating to a case of suspected inciting subversion that is currently under investigation by our bureau," reads one of two Beijing State Security Bureau notices translated by Dui Hua. "In accordance with Article 45 of the Criminal Procedure Law of the [People's Republic of China], [these items] may be collected."

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The notice suggests two things which Yahoo may have omitted from its 2006 testimony: First and most obviously is the reference to a suspected subversive. But secondly is the mention of "investigation," which points to a possibility that somehow a PRC office or agency is capable of detecting the contents of Yahoo mail accounts. The implications here could be very broad: Did Yahoo open up a gateway to PRC agents willingly? Or is a PRC bureau spying on Yahoo customers...and are all of those customers guaranteed to be Chinese citizens?

Yahoo spokesperson Jim Cullinan responded to the Associated Press this morning by expressing disappointment that congresspeople were "rushing to judgment on this issue, because the facts will support Yahoo's testimony to Congress."

Rep. Lantos reportedly stated on Friday, "Covering up such a despicable practice when Congress seeks an explanation is a serious offense. For a firm engaged in the information industry, Yahoo sure has a lot of secrecy to answer for."

A spokesperson for Reporters Without Borders added this comment this morning: "Yahoo's confused statements must finally be clarified. It is time the US corporation recognized its mistakes and accepted the consequences."

But while that organization hails Lantos' move to hold Yahoo "to account," it isn't clear what Congress can do from there, besides perhaps citing Callahan with contempt. After the February 2006 Congressional hearing, the State Department launched what was called the Global Internet Freedom Task Force (GIFT), one of whose missions at the time of its charter was to study "the use of technology to track and repress dissidents."

The Task Force appears to have assembled its first meeting just last January, with the results being a general approval of how technology can "frustrate censorship and central control" - implying that technology, as a force unto itself, can unravel the webs of deceit tied by foreign governments and domestic corporations. Somehow, Rep. Lantos may find himself having to cooperate with GIFT in moving forward with his investigation.

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