Yahoo, free speech and anonymity in China

In 2002 Wang Xiaoning was sent to prison for 10 years after Yahoo passed on personal information Chinese authorities used to identify him. Judith Bruhn explores a case of conflicting laws and moral expectations.

The case

In 2000 and 2001 the Shenyang-based engineer Wang Xiaoning anonymously posted writings calling for democratic reform and an end to China’s single-party rule on a Yahoo online discussion group. Chinese authorities arrested him in 2002 after the US internet company’s Hong Kong subsidiary provided information to the government that was used to identify him. Wang was convicted on subversion charges in September 2003 and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

In 2007 the families of Wang Xiaoning and Shi Tao, a Chinese journalist who was also convicted after Yahoo helped identify him to authorities, filed a lawsuit against the company in a federal court in San Francisco. The lawsuit cited US human rights laws including the Alien Torts Statute and the Torture Victim Protection Act. At a hearing at the US house committee on foreign affairs, US Representative Tom Lantos told Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang to apologise to the detainees’ families and said of the internet giant, “morally you are pygmies”. Yang publicly apologised in court and the lawsuit was settled a week later. On 31 August 2012 Wang was released from prison after serving his full sentence. Shi Tao remained in prison.

Author opinion

Wang Xiaoning exercised free speech when he posted on the Yahoo group. It may have been morally wrong of Yahoo to provide information that identified him to Chinese authorities, but the company was caught between the demands of the Chinese government and law and those of its users and international law. Legally it would have been difficult for Yahoo employees not to respond to the Chinese authorities’ requests for information without risking serious consequences for the company and possibly for themselves.

Wang had agreed to the terms of use before joining the Yahoo group and had therefore, whether knowingly or not, agreed to refrain from “damaging public security, revealing state secrets, subverting state power [and] damaging national unity” and had acknowledged that such information would be disclosed to authorities if required by law. This is a dilemma many multinational internet providers face today. It was the moral responsibility of Yahoo to protect Wang’s freedom but not its legal responsibility under Chinese law.

- Judith Bruhn

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford.

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