Amid more Internet censorship, Yahoo! asked to explain attacks on email accounts

Published on 31 March 2010

Reporters Without Borders is concerned about repeated cases of censorship and cyber-attacks on the Chinese Internet. The Yahoo! email accounts of several foreign journalists based in China have been the target of hacker attacks in recent weeks. The Chinese version of Google’s search engine, based in Hong Kong since 22 March, has been subject to intermittent censorship in recent days but appeared to be functioning normally again this morning.

“We urge Yahoo! to recognise the need for transparency and provide information about the nature and extent of these cyber-attacks,” Reporters Without Borders said. “If its clients are not given the information they need, Yahoo! could appear to be protecting those responsible for these attacks. Are they generalised attacks on Yahoo! email servers in China or are they targeted attacks on human rights activists and journalists like the ones that affected Google at the end of last year? And how long have they been going on?”

“The Chinese authorities must explain how they are combating these kinds of cyber-attacks, which are totally contrary to Chinese laws,” Reporters Without Borders added. “Cyber-security is also at stake in this matter.”

As regards the intermittent censorship of in recent days, which Reporters Without Borders has been following closely, the press freedom organisation said: “It is still too soon to say whether the blocking of the Chinese version of Google’s search engine was deliberate or the result of a technical error, whether it can be seen as a warning to the Internet giant from the Chinese authorities, and whether they are paving the way to blocking the site completely, which would be an act of censorship and a violation of free expression.”

Many search attempts yesterday using yielded no result, unlike searches using Baidu. Even searches for such basic words as “China” yielded an error message. The problem was chiefly seen in the Beijing area, while Shanghai was less affected.

Google initially attributed the problem to internal technical settings, specifically, to the fact that the code identifying the search parameters contained the sequence of three letters “rfa”, which was being blocked by the Great Firewall of China because the firewall has been programmed to deny access to the website of the US news radio station RFA (Radio Free Asia).

This theory was later discounted amid signs indicated that the blocking was deliberate. Access to Google’s mobile phone services have also apparently been partially blocked since 28 March.

Until the intermittent disruption of the past few days, the uncensored Chinese version of Google’s search engine,, had been displaying the results of searches using sensitive words but, in China, the Great Firewall blocked access to the links listed in the results.

China’s censors have been very active of the subject of Google. The State Council’s Information Bureau issued directives restricting coverage of Google’s decision to stop censoring its search results and close Documents obtained by Chinese Human Rights Defenders on 28 March show that website editors were instructed to “use only articles from official media” and “not carry out any investigative reporting” into the story. They were also told to “ban discussions about Google” and “not use press releases and information coming from Google.”

The cyber-attacks that prompted Google to close have not stopped. According to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC), the Yahoo! email accounts of at least 10 foreign journalists based in China and Taiwan have been attacked in recent weeks. The FCCC accuses Yahoo! of failing to respond to its questions and failing to explain to its clients what happened.

The accusations were reported by Clifford Coonan of The Irish Times, who said he got an error message when he tried to access his email account. Yahoo! simply said in a statement that it was “committed to protecting user security and privacy.”

American freelancer Kathleen McLaughlin, the victim of one of these attacks, told Reporters Without Borders today: “I attempted to log in on 25 March and was given a message that said my account had some problems and I needed to contact Yahoo! by phone for security purposes. After five days of attempting to do so, my account was finally restored this morning. Yahoo! has still not explained who accessed the account, when and how they noticed the hacking and what information might have been disclosed. I’m happy I don’t use the Yahoo! email for sensitive work.”

Cyber-attacks similar to the ones against Google have been identified in Vietnam. Tens of thousands of Internet users who thought they were downloading ordinary software were infected with malware which, according to Google, spied on users and launched DDoS-type attacks on blogs with dissident content.

The attacks above all targeted websites containing criticism of a Chinese company’s operations at Vietnamese bauxite mines, a sensitive subject in Vietnam. The Internet security company McAfee, which detected the malware, went so far is to suggest that its creators may have links with the Vietnamese government.

Zhao Lianhai, the editor of Internet Kidney Stone Babies, a website about infants who were affected by China’s tainted baby formula, was meanwhile tried behind closed doors yesterday on a charge of inciting social disorder. Zhao has been detained since November 2009. The verdict has not yet been announced.