Yahoo/China: A Huge CSR Challenge

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 11/07/2007 02:59:00 PM
The outlines of Shi Tao's case are well-known: the outraged journalist used his Yahoo Mail account to forward a notice by the Chinese authorities that it would not permit journalists to write about the fifteenth anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre. After the notice got out, these authorities asked Yahoo to provide information on who forwarded the message, eventually leading to Shi Tao who was then tossed behind bars with a ten year sentence.

It's hard for me to say what Yahoo should have done. Yes, cooperating with the Chinese government is a prerequisite for doing business in the country, but at what point should this cooperation stop? Indeed, can Yahoo even set limits on what it can and should disclose there? Consider the matter of self-censoring that Yahoo and Google have done to be able to ply their trade in China. As a longtime Yahoo user--ever since I got online in 1994--I am definitely torn by this case. You've probably already seen news stories [1, 2, 3] on Yahoo in China, so I will refer you to Congressman Tom Lantos's remarks on the matter. While it has the usual politician's melodrama (mebbe I should run for office), it does raise many points of discussion that are difficult to pass judgment on. Truly, an excellent case study for in-class discussion:
Such is the case with a young journalist named Shi Tao, who is languishing in a Chinese dungeon on a 10-year sentence because he pierced the veil, and a huge, U.S.-based multinational company practically led the police to his door.

On the eve of the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre three years ago, the Chinese government issued a directive forbidding journalists from covering anything related to this anniversary.

In a brief second that would have a momentous impact on the rest of his life, Shi Tao hit the “forward” button on his Yahoo! email account, and sent the government’s message to a NGO overseas advocating for democratic change in China.

When the Chinese government set out to unlock the mystery of who had publicly disclosed this document, they went to the offices of Yahoo! China to provide the key. The flagship American company represented by our two witnesses today – Chief Executive Officer Jerry Yang and General Counsel Michael Callahan – complied with the request from the Chinese political suppression apparatus and provided the necessary identifying information to track down Shi Tao...

In February 2006, under the then-Republican majority, this Committee convened a hearing on, and I quote, “The Internet in China: A Tool for Freedom or Suppression?” The hearing was chaired by my good friend and distinguished colleague, Representative Chris Smith. Witnesses included representatives from the State Department, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Google, Cisco Systems, and several NGOs. Yahoo! had been invited to testify specifically to address the facts of the Shi Tao case. They did so under oath, swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth...

Now, let me deal with the issue of what this means in a communist police state. The term “state secrets” is commonly used in China when a phony criminal case is concocted against political activists. A reasonable person who receives such an order would immediately know that the case in question involves a political or religious dissident. Even an unsophisticated person operating in the context of the Chinese police state would know full well that “state secrets” is a trick phrase used to fabricate a phony but devastating legal case against an innocent person who shares our values in an open and free society.

A key member of the Yahoo! briefing team that prepared Michael Callahan for his appearance before our Committee had a copy of the Beijing authorities’ document. Yahoo! China lawyers also had a copy of the document. Yet somehow, incredibly, Mr. Callahan apparently was not informed of these critical facts and the fundamental nature of the Yahoo!’s complicity with the persecution of Shi Tao...

After discovering that its General Counsel had provided false information on this critical matter, Yahoo did not conduct an internal investigation into the circumstances under which false information was provided to Congress. Yahoo tried to sweep this grave transgression under the rug. No internal review of the matter took place. No change in company procedures was instituted...

It should be self-evident that companies cannot get away with providing false information to Congress. So today, I call on Yahoo’s top corporate executives to apologize to this Committee, the Congress of the United States, and the American people.

But first and foremost, I urge our two witnesses to face the family of the Chinese journalist who, as a result of Yahoo’s actions, has been tossed into a Chinese prison. When he first appeared before this Committee, I asked Mr. Callahan whether he had reached out to Shi Tao’s family to offer an apology and to provide assistance. The answer was a resounding “no.” Fifteen months later, Yahoo has yet to provide any aid to Shi Tao’s family. Mr. Yang, Mr. Callahan, Shi Tao’s mother is sitting in the first row right behind you – I would urge you to beg the forgiveness of the mother whose son is languishing behind bars due to Yahoo’s actions.