Investigators said Wednesday there was not enough evidence to show that Yahoo Inc.’s Hong Kong branch provided private information that helped convict a Chinese reporter accused of leaking state secrets.
The case raised questions about whether Internet companies should cooperate with governments that deny freedom of speech and frequently crack down on journalists.
Yahoo! Hong Kong Limited was accused of helping Chinese authorities by Hong Kong lawmaker Albert Ho, who filed a complaint last year with the city’s privacy commissioner. Ho alleged the Internet company provided information that helped convict journalist Shi Tao, sentenced to 10 years in jail in 2005 on mainland China.
But the privacy commissioner’s office on Wednesday said there was insufficient evidence to prove that Yahoo! Hong Kong ? formerly known as Yahoo! Holdings (Hong Kong) Ltd. ? gave “personal data” to Chinese authorities.
The commissioner also said in a statement it was Yahoo’s branch in mainland China — owned by Yahoo! Hong Kong — that supplied information about Shi, so the act fell outside of Hong Kong’s jurisdiction.
“This is a case where data was collected in mainland China about a mainland Chinese resident,” said Roderick Woo, the privacy commissioner.
Yahoo Inc., based in Sunnyvale, Calif., has said before that it was required under Chinese law to provide information requested by mainland authorities. The Hong Kong privacy commissioner’s report said the Internet company provided Internet protocol log-in information and “certain e-mail content,” which wasn’t described.
The company said in a brief statement Wednesday, “Yahoo! Hong Kong maintains a high quality online environment for our users and takes user privacy very seriously.”
Shi, a former writer for the financial publication Contemporary Business News, was jailed under state secrecy laws for allegedly providing state secrets to foreigners. His conviction stemmed from an e-mail he sent containing his notes on a government circular that spelled out restrictions on the media.
Hong Kong lawmaker Ho said in March 2006 he submitted a complaint against Yahoo! Hong Kong to the privacy commissioner after obtaining a document that he said linked the company to Shi’s case.
Ho said the document was a copy of the criminal verdict for Shi from a court in the central Chinese province of Hunan. It said Yahoo Holdings (Hong Kong) Ltd. provided materials that confirmed the user’s information, Ho said.
On Wednesday, Ho criticized the privacy commissioner’s report, saying Yahoo! Hong Kong is still responsible because it controls the company’s China office.
“I have reason to believe the decision (to give information on Shi) was made in Hong Kong,” Ho said.
He said Yahoo! shouldn’t have surrendered the information to Chinese authorities unquestioningly.
“As an international company, Yahoo should know there are international standards it should follow, including those involving human rights and privacy. There’s no reason for it not to investigate whether (the information Shi released) was a state secret,” Ho said.
Human Rights Watch said earlier Yahoo also supplied information to Chinese authorities that led to the arrests of another journalist and two other Chinese dissidents besides Shi.