updated 9/12/2005 3:48:52 PM ET 2005-09-12T19:48:52

Yahoo had to comply with a demand by Chinese authorities to provide information about a personal e-mail of a journalist who was later convicted under state secrecy laws and sentenced to 10 years in prison, the company's co-founder Jerry Yang said Saturday.

Yang, responding to questions during an Internet forum in this eastern Chinese resort city, said he could not discuss the details of the case involving Shi Tao, a former writer for the financial publication Contemporary Business News.

Overseas-based human rights groups disclosed days earlier that Yahoo Holdings (Hong Kong) Ltd., part of Yahoo's global network, provided e-mail account information that helped lead to Shi's conviction.

Yahoo earlier defended its move, saying it was obliged to comply with Chinese laws and regulations.

The demand for the information was a "legal order" and Yahoo gets such requests from law enforcement agencies all the time, and not just in China, Yang told the forum.

But he added, "I cannot talk about the details of this case."

Other Chinese journalists have faced similar charges of violating vague security laws as communist leaders struggle to maintain control of information in the burgeoning Internet era.

Despite government information sharing requirements and other restrictions, Yahoo and its major rivals have been expanding their presence in mainland China in hopes of reaching more of the country's fast-growing population of Internet users, which now number more than 100 million.

Yahoo paid $1 billion for a 40 percent stake in Alibaba.com, host of the Hangzhou conference, last month.

New York-based Human Rights in China and the Paris-based international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders sent an open letter addressed to former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who was a keynote speaker at the Internet forum, urging him to bring up Shi's case during his visit to China.

But Clinton only alluded to the risks faced by Internet users targeted by the authorities for whatever reason.

"The Internet, no matter what political system a country has, and our political system is different from yours, the Internet is having significant political and social consequences and they cannot be erased," he said.

"The political system's limits on freedom of speech ... have not seemed to have any adverse consequences on e-commerce," he said. "It's something you'll all have to watch and see your way through," he said.

According to Reporters Without Borders, court papers show that Yahoo Holdings (Hong Kong) Ltd. gave Chinese investigators information that helped them trace a personal Yahoo e-mail to Shi's computer.

It says Shi was convicted for sending notes on a government circular spelling out restrictions on the media in his e-mail. He was seized in November at his home in the northwestern province of Shanxi.

The case is the latest instance in which a prominent high-tech company has faced accusations of cooperating with Chinese authorities to gain favor in a country that's expected to become an Internet gold mine.

Sunnyvale, California-based Yahoo and two of its biggest rivals, Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp.'s MSN, previously have come under attack for censoring online news sites and Web logs, or blogs, featuring content that China's communist government wants to suppress.

Copyright The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved.

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