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Yahoo! in second Chinese dissident rumpus

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Yahoo! has been accused of assisting Chinese authorities for a second time to apprehend a Chinese dissident. Li Zhi was given an eight-year jail sentence in December 2003 for "inciting subversion" over comments criticising official corruption posted on online discussion groups. The case against Li (a 35-year-old ex-civil servant from Dazhou in south west China) was based on data supplied by Yahoo!'s Hong Kong subsidiary, according to media watchdog Reporters Without Borders.

Last year, Yahoo! was criticised over similar accusations that it bent over backwards to help Beijing gather evidence that led to the imprisonment of reporter Shi Tao for "divulging state secrets", by forwarding an email about the risks of referring to the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests to foreign websites. According to Reporters Without Border, 49 cyber-dissidents and 32 journalists are in prison in China over internet postings criticising Chinese authorities. It is calling on Yahoo! China to come clean about how many of these people it has assisted local police in investigating.

Yahoo! spokeswoman Mary Osako told the AFP that it was "rigorous" in its procedures and "only responded with what we were legally compelled to provide, and nothing more". Chinese authorities are not required to provide reasons for data requests, she added.

Reporters Without Borders said this justification is inadequate. "The firm [Yahoo!] says it simply responds to requests from the authorities for data without ever knowing what it will be used for. But this argument no longer holds water. Yahoo! certainly knew it was helping to arrest political dissidents and journalists, not just ordinary criminals," it said.

The Chinese Government imposes strict control on internet use. IT giants hoping to tap into the lucrative Chinese net market are coming under increase pressure from human rights groups not to comply with Beijing in censoring the internet. Last month, Google came under attack for blocking results from searches on politically sensitive terms on its new Chinese site. Alongside Google and Yahoo!, other IT giants including Microsoft and Cisco have been taken to task for their business practices in China.

The US House of Representatives Committee on International Relations is due to hold a hearing on 15 February about the ethical responsibilities of US firms doing business in China. Yahoo! has been invited to attend. ®

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