Yahoo, MSN affiliates agree to blogging controls in China

New York, August 27, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply concerned by the decision of blog hosting services in China, including Yahoo China and MSN China, to sign a pledge that “encourages” real-name registration for bloggers and commits companies to deleting “illegal or inappropriate information.”

“The Chinese government depends on the complicity of private companies to effectively monitor and censor Internet content,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “Internet companies should be doing everything they can to promote the free exchange of news and information in China, rather than voluntarily assisting the state in gathering information that could be used to target independent journalists and political dissidents.” 

The Internet Society of China, which is governed by the Ministry of Information, announced last Wednesday that major blog service providers  had agreed to a “self-discipline code for blog services,” according to the official Xinhua news agency. “Blog service providers who allow the use of pseudonyms may be more attractive to bloggers, but they will be punished by the government if they fail to screen illegal information,” Xinhua quoted Huang Chengqing, the society’s secretary-general, as saying. China’s Internet regulations bar the posting of any information deemed to be against state interests.

A Yahoo spokeswoman today sought to distance the corporation from the decisions of its Chinese affiliate, saying the U.S.-based media giant shared concerns about the agreement’s impact on freedom of expression. “We believe the real-name registration aspect of the pledge presents potential risks to free expression and privacy,” spokeswoman Kelley Benander told CPJ. “When we became aware of the possibility of the pledge, we expressed our strong concerns to Yahoo China,” she added. She said U.S.-based Yahoo Inc. owns a minority share in Yahoo China, which is operated by the Chinese company Alibaba.

Asked whether the company’s actions so far were limited to expressions of concern, Benander told CPJ, “That’s correct.”

Microsoft also indicated that it had reservations about the agreement. “While the self-regulatory code does make some recommendations that Microsoft does not support, it should be emphasized that these are indeed recommendations only, and we retain discretion to determine how to best achieve the overarching goals of the agreement,” the company said in a statement. MSN China is a joint venture of Microsoft Corp. and Shanghai Alliance Investment Ltd.

Said CPJ’s Simon: “Based on the actions of the Chinese government to date, many of the provisions in this so-called ‘self-discipline’ agreement will come back to haunt the companies involved. China is the world’s leading jailer of journalists, most of whom have been arrested for materials published online.”

In “Falling Short,” a special report issued this month, CPJ outlined China’s failure to meet promises to improve press freedom in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. CPJ found that China has the world’s most extensive system of Internet censorship. China now imprisons 29 journalists, at least 19 of whom are Internet writers and editors.

CPJ noted the case of jailed writer Shi Tao, former editor of the Changsha-based newspaper Dangdai Shang Bao, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for allegedly “leaking state secrets abroad” in a 2004 e-mail sent to the editor of an overseas Web site. Yahoo officials have acknowledged helping Chinese authorities identify Shi through his e-mail account.

Shi’s message described government instructions on how media should cover the 15th anniversary of the military crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. The instructions were “classified” only after the fact.

Yahoo and Microsoft are engaged in ongoing discussions with press freedom and human rights groups (including CPJ), socially responsible investment funds, and international legal experts to draw up a voluntary code of conduct for technology companies. Google and the U.K.-based Vodafone are also participating. The code is intended to follow in the spirit of the Sullivan Principles, which set socially responsible goals for companies in the 1970s at the height of international economic sanctions against apartheid South Africa. The discussions have not resulted in a code as yet.