Oct. 2, 2005, 9:41PM
A CHINESE journalist named Shi Tao has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for distributing e-mail that outlined Chinese government rules restricting news coverage of the anniversary of the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen. Square. Though repugnant to American sensibilities, Shi's harsh sentence for "leaking state secrets" is not unusual in China. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 42 writers and editors were in Chinese jails at the end of 2004.
What is truly appalling about this episode is that it was a Chinese subsidiary of the American Internet search company Yahoo that directly enabled Shi's prosecution. Yahoo employees, when called on by Chinese authorities to identify the sender of the anonymous e-mail, promptly turned over account information that led police to arrest Shi this past November. Yahoo's shamefully thin defense was that the company is obligated to comply with foreign laws that govern their international operations.
China's leadership has always been leery of the Internet's ability to help the country's exploding number of Internet users — now estimated to number more than 100 million — to circumvent the country's notorious limits on free speech and nonstate-approved information sources. China recently tightened restraints on bloggers and Internet cafe users. Its leaders regard information on state executions as national security secrets. It was only recently that officials allowed journalists to report death tolls in natural disasters. That Yahoo, an American company, saw fit to collaborate in this official information repression is reprehensible.
Other U.S. technology firms have been criticized for similar transgressions. Google and Microsoft's MSN have censored online news sites and blog content at China's behest. So much for the much-hyped concept of the Web as vehicle for engendering global political freedom.
The profit potential represented by China's vast consumer markets are highly irresistible to American companies. More power to Yahoo and other high-tech firms for successful tapping into those markets. But they cross a moral line when they sacrifice bedrock democratic American principles and put profits ahead of respecting their Chinese customers' right of free expression.