Yahoo Apologizes, But Are Journalists Any Safer?

Yesterday, the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, led by Tom Lantos, slammed Yahoo’s disclosure of the identity of journalist Shi Tao to the Chinese government. Lantos also criticized the company’s failure to acknowledge its role in the disclosure when questioned in a 2006 House hearing.

Shi used his Yahoo email account to forward a Chinese government memo prohibiting journalists from covering the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. After Yahoo disclosed his identity to Chinese authorities, Shi was jailed with a 10 year sentence for revealing state secrets. Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang, and General Counsel Michael Callahan appeared to represent the company.

Here is some of Lantos’ official statement:

Yahoo provided false information to Congress. Despite the sworn testimony before the Committee that Yahoo! did not know the nature of the investigation into the Shi Tao case, Yahoo! employees did know that the Chinese government wanted information related to Shi Tao because of a so-called “state secrets” investigation in order to imprison him….

When Mr. Callahan later discovered that he had provided false information, he did not make the slightest attempt, not the slightest attempt, to correct the information he had given to Congress under oath…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…

A company of Yahoo!’s resources and sophistication operating in the Chinese milieu should have taken every conceivable step to prevent the automatic compliance with a request from the Chinese police apparatus.

For those interested, here is Callahan’s response, in which he explains the lack of forthrightness with Congress was accidental, due to confusion over the term “State Secrets.” Lantos ripped this explanation apart in his statement, saying it was “inexcusably negligent behavior at best.”

Yang and Callahan also expressed regret for Shi Tao and his family, as well as Wang Xiaoning, another Chinese journalist tracked down and arrested through a Yahoo account. “My heart goes out to the families,” Yang said, and his testimony maintained that “Yahoo! is a company committed to doing the right thing and to protecting human rights globally.” Yang listed some of Yahoo’s good works, including sponsoring a Knight journalism fellowship at Stanford for students from repressive countries, and a fellowship at Georgetown on global values and technology.

When the Stanford fellowship was endowed by Yahoo, there was some protest on campus that the company was trying to buy its way out of trouble, and that if it continued to allow journalists to be exposed by Yahoo, the money should not be accepted.

Interestingly, Yang’s testimony emphasized that Yahoo China is now owned by the company Alibaba, and that Yahoo does not participate in day to day operations. This is hardly a reassurance to journalists, as Yang did not give any indication that Alibaba was going to make speech and human rights protections a priority. Since Yahoo owns 40 percent of Alibaba, it would be easy to argue Yahoo is still culpable if Alibaba cooperates in any further repression.

Food for thought: While it’s great that Tom Lantos and members of Congress are defending human rights and Chinese journalists, what about the issue of sovereignty and business rules? If a Chinese company defied demands by Congress or the president to comply with U.S. laws, there would be a firestorm in Congress, and pundits would go berserk. Can American companies defy Chinese law? Is Congress really ready to back Yahoo, Google or others against China if protecting speech and human rights cause retaliation against the businesses?

With the Olympics coming up, China is unlikely to push too hard against U.S. companies, but Congress should consider what might happen, and how to proceed if this ever occurs.