The Case Against Yahoo! China

House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2007, blasted Yahoo!‘s top executives for engaging in a deliberate campaign of misinformation about its compliance with the repressive Chinese regime. That news asked for a serious discussion among S, T and I. Our canteen is the “adda” for all “policy-related” discussions, so it happens that several people keep joining and leaving in between — according to their tolerance levels. We came up with several questions, which I shall ask after briefing the historical data that relates to the recent Yahoo event.

The Shi Tao Case

On 20 April 2004, the Chinese government released the Number 11 document “A notice concerning the work for maintaining stability.” In the document, it warned journalists that overseas pro-democracy Chinese dissidents may come back to mainland China during the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989 on June 4th, which would affect the politico-social order’s stability and asked all news media to not report anything regarding that event.

When the Chinese government found out that Shi Tao used his private Yahoo! email account to send a brief of the document to an overseas website called Asia Democracy Foundation, it demanded the sender’s personal information from Yahoo!’s Hong Kong office. Shortly thereafter, Shi Tao was detained on 24 November 2004 and formally arrested on December 14. The Chinese authorities confiscated his computer and documents without showing any proper permit or document, and warned his family members not to talk about it with others.

His lawyer, Guo Guoting, stated that the search, seizure and subsequent arrest were illegal. As a result, his license to practice law was suspended for one year by Shanghai‘s Department of Law. He was later put under house arrest, and one of his co-workers had to take over the case.

In March 2005, Hunan Changsha Intermediate People’s Court held its first hearing secretly. Shi Tao’s family was not permitted to attend the hearing. He was sentenced to prison for ten years, and will lose his political rights for two years on the charge of leaking state secrets. In June 2005, the Hunan High People’s Court rejected his lawyer’s arguments and denied his appeal, keeping the original sentencing.

One can find the further details on Shi Tao’s case here. Before Shi Tao there were three other Chinese dissidents about whom Chinese police obtained user information from Yahoo! in Beijing. One can find the details through the following links: Details of Li Zhi’s case, Details of Jiang Lijun’s case, Details of Wang Xiaoning’s case.

Reactions

The incidents mentioned above sparked a controversy about the business practices of Yahoo!; it being criticized as a “police informant”. In August 2007, the World Organization for Human Rights sued Yahoo! for allegedly passing information to the Chinese government that caused the arrests of writers and dissidents. The suit was filed in San Francisco for journalists, Shi Tao, and Wang Xiaoning. Most recent is the one I mentioned at the start of this post — Chairman of the Congressional Committee, Tom Lantos of California, said the following in his opening remark,

“Yahoo! claims that this is just one big misunderstanding. Let me be clear – this was no misunderstanding. This was inexcusably negligent behavior at best, and deliberately deceptive behavior at worst. In preparing for testimony before this Committee, Yahoo! did not see fit to hire a translator to make sure the document upon which it relied for its entire defense was translated properly. Mr. Callahan never asked to see the document. And the Yahoo! lawyer who had it – by Yahoo!’s own explanation – failed to consider the document “significant,” even after Congress ordered Yahoo! to appear to answer directly on this outrage, which landed an innocent Chinese journalist in prison. Yahoo’s own lawyers in Beijing also had the document, and knew full well its meaning. Either Yahoo! has little regard for providing full and complete information to a fully constituted committee of the Congress, or it has little regard for the issue of protecting human rights.”

Though Yahoo! doesn’t directly control its subsidiary group Alibaba in China, Lantos’s objections were because Yang is on its board.

Before I come back to the discussion we three had last evening, please take a look at Corporate Complicity in Chinese Internet Censorship.”

We came up with the following questions:

  • Is there a need of separate international laws that all multinationals must abide by? In which case, the law of the land should not apply to that corporation.
  • Are Human Rights above any law of the land, even if they compromise the sovereignty of that land/state?
  • Should Yahoo! and other corporations be held responsible for the actions of their foreign subsidiaries, especially when they have very little or no control on them?
  • Who should a foreign subsidiary be answerable to: the land where it is located or the land where its parent company is located?

We have our notions as answers to these questions, but it will require a detailed workout to be put in a human readable form. Someday, we’ll do that.

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