Maintaining privacy

Internet user privacy issues
Yahoo! Inc.
Internet search engine providers

A subsidiary of the internet company Yahoo! Inc., Yahoo! Hong Kong (YHKL), and Chinese firm Alibaba have faced scrutiny from NGOs, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Reporters without Borders, for allegedly passing personal data to the Chinese authorities that reportedly led to the imprisonment of several political dissidents. Privacy rights issues are central to the allegations.

In one instance the NGOs claim Yahoo! Hong Kong (YHKL) provided information that helped convict a journalist called Shi Tao, who was sentenced in April 2005 to 10 years in jail in mainland China for allegedly leaking state secrets. In March 2006, Hong Kong lawmaker Albert Ho filed a complaint with Hong Kong's privacy commissioner in which he presented a document reported to be a copy of the Chinese court's criminal verdict for Shi Tao, in which it said that YHKL had provided the material that confirmed the journalist's identity. In March 2007 the Hong Kong privacy commissioner announced that there was insufficient evidence to prove YHKL's involvement. The commissioner also noted that the case fell outside of Hong Kong's jurisdiction. Mr Ho has disputed the findings.

In 2007 the Shi Tao allegations became part of a lawsuit pursued against Yahoo! Inc. in a US Federal Court under the US Alien Tort Claims Act. The lawsuit ended in November 2007 when the case was settled out of court. The terms of the settlement are confidential. Yahoo! had earlier asked for the case to be dismissed, arguing that it had no choice but to comply with a lawful Chinese government request for information connected to an investigation by the authorities, as not to do so might place Yahoo's Chinese staff in legal jeopardy. The company said:

“Yahoo! deeply sympathizes with the plaintiffs and their families and does not condone the suppression of their rights and liberty by their government. But Yahoo! has no control over the sovereign government of the People's Republic of China ('PRC'), the laws it passes, and the manner in which it enforces its laws. Neither Yahoo Inc. or YHKL therefore, can be held liable for the independent acts of the PRC just because a former Yahoo subsidiary in China obeyed a lawful government request for the collection of evidence relevant to a pending investigation.”

In a statement welcomed by a number of NGOs, Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang noted that “Yahoo! is dismayed and distressed by the impact of people imprisoned in China and around the world,” and is “fully committed to protecting human rights in the business world's most challenging markets”. Yahoo has opposed unsuccessful shareholder proposals to force the adoption of stronger policies regarding government requests for user information. Yahoo argues that to do so would give the company “insufficient flexibility” to respond to legal requirements and legitimate government requests.

Since January 2007, Yahoo!, Google and Microsoft have participated in an initiative with the Center for Democracy and Technology, Business for Social Responsibility, and other companies, academics, investors, technology leaders and rights organisations to produce a set of principles to guide company behaviour on privacy issues (and related human rights issues such as freedom of expression).

In February 2008, Jerry Yang wrote to US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, reportedly urging the US State Department's diplomatic assistance in the release of Shi Tao and other political dissidents. In May 2008, as part of a new Yahoo! Business and Human Rights Programme that includes Guiding Principles and Operational Guidelines for the company, Yahoo! said, “We're committed to the international foundation of freedom of expression and privacy, and we'll continue translating those principles into practical steps to be followed by our employees.”

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