A media watch group alleged Tuesday that Yahoo Inc. gave the Chinese government access to e-mails sent from a journalist's personal Web account, helping land him a 10-year jail sentence.
Shi Tao, an editorial department head at the Contemporary Business News in China's Hunan Province, was convicted of divulging state secrets by a court in the provincial capital, Changsha, last April, according to Reporters Without Borders, a French press freedom organization.
The Yahoo e-mails were used as material evidence in the conviction, according to information provided by the group.
"We already knew that Yahoo collaborates enthusiastically with the Chinese regime in questions of censorship, and now we know it is a Chinese police informant as well," the group said.
Yahoo defended its actions. "Just like any other global company, Yahoo must ensure that its local country sites must operate within the laws, regulations and customs of the country in which they are based," said Mary Osako, a Yahoo spokeswoman, in a prepared statement sent via e-mail to IDG News Service.
The media watch group said that while Internet companies like Yahoo and Google face a dilemma of complying with the laws of the countries in which they operate -- leading them to censor certain information in China, and apparently hand over personal emails -- they need to consider the cost of their efforts.
"Does the fact that (Yahoo) operates under Chinese law free it from all ethical considerations? How far will it go to please Beijing?" the group asked.
Tao pled guilty to the charges, according to materials related to the case provided by Reporters Without Borders, in the hope that doing so would reduce the penalty. The incriminating e-mail, sent on April 20, 2004, contained information regarding a Chinese government warning for its commissars to be vigilant ahead of the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and watch out for dissident activity.
The journalist sent the information via e-mail to a pro-China democracy Web site based in New York, www.asiadem.org, and it was published under the alias 198964, the date Beijing crushed the student-led democracy movement, June 4, 1989.
U.S. Internet companies have been scrambling to build their presence in China's growing Web market. In recent months, eBay and Yahoo have inked deals to further their presence in the country. In a high profile deal announced last month, Yahoo agreed to pay US$1 billion and turn over its China operations to Alibaba.com, in return for a 40 percent stake in the Chinese company.
(Juan Carlos Perez in Miami contributed with this story.)