In an opinion piece available today in the NYT, Tina Rosenberg describes how American companies are fawning over the Chinese market to the extent that they will sell their grandmothers to get a piece of the action. Yahoo is particularly egregious. An excerpt:
In April 2004, a few weeks before the 15th anniversary of Beijing’s massacre of protesters in Tiananmen Square, the top-ranking staff members of The Contemporary Business News in Hunan were called into a meeting. An editor read a message from the Communist Party’s propaganda department warning that protests or media coverage of the anniversary would not be tolerated as June 4 approached. Though the message was routine, the reporters were warned not to take notes.
But Shi Tao, one of the journalists, did. He e-mailed them to a Chinese dissident in America, who posted them on the Web. A few months later, Mr. Shi was arrested. This April, he was given 10 years in prison, a sentence the judge called lenient, for disseminating state secrets abroad.
How did the police find Mr. Shi? His newly published verdict states that the prosecution relied in part on information given to the government by Mr. Shi’s e-mail provider, Yahoo.
American companies like Microsoft and Cisco have all sold China security tools and firewalls that China has turned into political controls. The companies argue that it is not their fault if China misuses standard politically neutral technology. They are right, but many foreign Internet companies in China have gone beyond neutrality. Some, including Yahoo, signed a pledge of “self-discipline” in 2002, promising to follow China’s censorship laws. Many Internet portals actively censor their Chinese Web sites.
Snitching on a client to totalitarian police is still another category of bad behavior, a move that should shrivel the keyboard fingers of Yahoo users everywhere. Since Chinese legal verdicts so rarely come to light, it is unclear how commonly this occurs. It has always been easy to imagine China’s government asking Internet companies for the e-mail of, say, a foreign businessman competing against a Chinese business or government entity. Now it is easy to imagine Yahoo complying.
The company admits it linked the e-mail to Mr. Shi’s telephone for the police. Its only comment has been a brief declaration that its local subsidiaries must obey local laws, regulations and customs. But according to the verdict, the Yahoo subsidiary that turned in Mr. Shi is in Hong Kong. It has no more obligation to obey China’s security laws than does Yahoo in Sunnyvale, Calif.
Having spent many billable hours removing the Yahoo instant messenger from people’s computers, I think Yahoo is a internet parasite. What value does it add exactly? And now, behind the smiley faces and pop-up ads, Yahoo contributes openly to the gulag.