The China conundrum
Big brother is watching
Yahoo Grapples With Online Rights
By TOM ZELLER Jr.
Published: February 13, 2006
In advance of what could be harsh Congressional questioning this week, Yahoo plans to issue a statement today outlining its belief in openness and freedom of speech — even when it is forced to violate those beliefs by laws in China.
Yahoo and three other technology companies are to testify Wednesday before a House human rights subcommittee about their business dealings in China.
"We are deeply concerned by efforts of governments to restrict and control open access to information and communication," an advance copy of the statement said. "We also firmly believe the continued presence and engagement of companies like Yahoo is a powerful force in promoting openness and reform."
In addition to pledging to work with industry, government and other groups to develop policies for doing business in restrictive countries, Yahoo, which censors the results on the Chinese version of its search engine to meet government demands, also said it would strive to make those restrictions apparent to users.
Yahoo's general counsel, Michael Callahan, will join executives from Google, Microsoft and Cisco before the House subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations on Wednesday.
All four companies have come under fire for their dealings in China — from agreeing to censor their search or blogging tools to providing hardware that makes government surveillance of Internet users easier.
The Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders revealed last Wednesday that a Chinese division of Yahoo had provided information to authorities that contributed to the conviction in 2003 of Li Zhi, a former civil servant who had criticized local officials online. Mr. Li is serving eight years in prison
It is easy to say Yahoo is wrong, but this isn't as simple as it seems and the core issue isn't about free speech.
First, the US government has pushed businesses to go and invest in China. Especially high tech industries, from IBM to Yahoo.
Second, Yahoo is bound to follow Chinese law if they do business in China. If people are jailed behind it, well, it's no different when people are jailed in the US under US law.
Free speech isn't the issue, because it doesn't exist under Chinese law.
The real question is will US companies do business in China when those laws, which they are bound to obey, conflict with their principles. Now, remember, Yahoo was encouraged to deal with the Chinese and this wasn't part of the deal when it started.
But it is now.
Yahoo needs to consider the consequences of its actions. By obeying Chinese law, they may have to participate in human rights violations, and it may affect their business in the West.
Is Yahoo willing to conform to Chinese law, despite the outrage it causes in the west or will they walk away from doing business in China. Because that is the only choice on the table.
posted by Steve @ 12:43:00 AM