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.
I agree that it’s a sad and unfortunate situation. But, it’s also very confusing to me. What should a company do? Must companies be political in this new world? Should companies apply their values to local laws? (Internet companies regularily comply with Patriot Act info requests against US citizens — is this snitching worse? why?)>>Of course it’s horrible that China imprisons journalists.>>It’s easy to point the finger at a large company. It makes a good headline – and clearly this particular situation sucks. But, many situations suck, including that many of my computer componets are made there, that Wal Mart sells chinese-manufactured good… Is it less bad to look the other way in these situations? Should companies be held to a higher standard than we hold ourselves?>>Another point is that search engines censor content in about a dozen countries (including western/developed countries like France). What exactly makes China special?>>It’s fine to complain about this situation and the company involved, but I’d be much more interested in hearing your suggestions for another path. >>thanks
Your post says>>“Some, including Yahoo, signed a pledge of “self-discipline” in 2002, promising to follow China’s censorship laws.”>>Can you clarify which companies did NOT sign this pledge? You’ve singled out Yahoo in this piece, and I’d like you to clarify for your readers from whom they are unique? >>Which internet companies in China have found a workable solution to this political problem?>>(If Gmail has the same policy, should we using blogger? If Hotmail has the same policy, will you quit using Windows or Word? Should we? )
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There is more on this from an article in the IHT which alludes to the censorship of the search engines…>>Many thanks for your comments.>>>>>>>It’s fine to complain about this situation and the company involved, but I’d be much more interested in hearing your suggestions for another path.>>>>>>>Well, unless someone is made aware of an issue is it tough to make suggestions. So, while my own post might considered a “complaint”, I was interested in reading the original piece this morning in the Times. In the case of Yahoo… I was already avoiding them a much as possible for reasons unrelated to this particular situation; the article only reinforced my question of “What is the value-added of Yahoo to the internet community?”. My one suggestion is to examine, insofar as possible, the consumer choices that you make, and find those that support companies that “suck less”. And it isn’t that this doesn’t make a difference… certainly Nike and Nestle have changed their business practices to conform to consumer pressure. (Halliburton may take a little longer).>>>>>>>>Should companies be held to a higher standard than we hold ourselves?>>>>>>>>Why should companies be exempt from moral standards? >>Governments and businesses are collective expressions of our individual selves.>>We should hold companies to standards, not least because as consumers, customers, staff, mangement and stockholders we have at least some power to do so. >>We should do the same for government, to the extent possible.