Microsoft, Yahoo, and betrayal in China

The two companies have been walking a not-so-fine line as they tap into an enormous but ethically challenged mainland Internet market. Yahoo, especially, has been deferential. Maybe their merger should have conditions.
Crosscut archive image.

Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang, left, and dissident journalist Shi Tao.

The two companies have been walking a not-so-fine line as they tap into an enormous but ethically challenged mainland Internet market. Yahoo, especially, has been deferential. Maybe their merger should have conditions.

With all the chin scratching over the latticework of a Yahoo-Microsoft merger, what better time to flag the killjoy issues of human rights, search-engine filtering, and collusion with bad-guy governments?

Cooperating with hegemons and censoring Internet search words like "democracy" and "dissent" aren't quite as tangible as the swashbuckling abuses of the United Fruits and ITTs overthrowing unfriendly governments in decades past.

Simply picturing Chinese dissidents rotting in jail will need to suffice.

As Human Rights Watch reports, Yahoo has been especially egregious when it comes to coughing up user data and handing it over to Chinese authorities. This collusion led directly to the arrest and 10-year prison sentence of Shi Tao, a dissident journalist and poet.

The issue of Shi Tao, whose family subsequently settled with Yahoo, triggered the following exchange between House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos, Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang, and company General Counsel Michael Callahan during a Nov. 6, 2007, committee hearing:

Chairman Lantos: Why is it such a complicated issue to help a family whose breadwinner has been imprisoned because of Yahoo's cooperation with the Chinese police? What is so complicated about that?

Mr. Yang: Mr. Chairman, as I said to you, I think that Yahoo should do more. I personally should do more.

Chairman Lantos: You couldn't do less, you couldn't do less.

Mr. Yang: I take your point, and we will do more as we go forward in helping and understanding what is our role in this.

Mr. Callahan: If I may, sir.

Chairman Lantos: Yes.

Mr. Callahan: In addition to the efforts that Mr. Yang described, we have advocated with human rights groups and with the State Department specifically for the release of the dissidents in question.

Chairman Lantos: That is not help to the family. You are not viewed as the champion human rights advocates in the world in view of this episode, so your chiming in with people who are devoting their lives to human rights is not that impressive. My question was a very specific question: Why hasn't this gigantic corporation of enormous wealth reached out to the family to help the family? And I have no answer. I just get equivocation.

Mr. Callahan: We have pursued advocacy through other channels, but not directly through the family, sir, you are right.

This was not grandstanding by Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor serving in the U.S. Congress. To the congressman's non-parochial credit, Yahoo is headquartered in his district.

At the end of the hearing, Lantos concluded:

It is mainly important to the committee, gentleman, but it ought to be a great deal more important to your own conscience. Don't accommodate the committee. Look into your own soul and see the damage you have done to an innocent human being and to his family. That is what you should respond to. Don't propitiate the committee. It will make no difference to the committee what you do, but it will make you better human beings if you recognize your own responsibility for the enormous damage your policies have created. That should be your guide.

According to Human Rights Watch, Microsoft sidestepped collaboration with Chinese police by offshoring its Hotmail servers. At the same time, Microsoft permitted its Chinese MSN blog titles to nix pesky words like "freedom," a policy it has since liberalized, it says.

Apologists still float the concept of "constructive engagement," the Reagan-era policy used to rationalize business with baddies. Oppressed people will learn by watching us, the argument goes. Democracy by osmosis.

It only took decades of repression in Apartheid South Africa to underscore the moral bankruptcy of go-along/get-along strategies.

Ironically, desktop publishing and Internet access were supposed to be antagonists to totalitarian regimes, samizdat hooked to the world's biggest megaphone. Search-engine censorship and data sharing undermined that covenant. Now, the Internet serves as much as an instrument for tyranny as for pluralism.

In the coming weeks, we'll be reading about merging business cultures, the propriety of hostile takeovers, Steve Ballmer's personality quirks, and questions of antitrust enforcement. We need to add human rights to that list.

Lawmakers should start by conditioning a Yahoo-Microsoft merger to adding teeth to an Internet/human rights agreement. I don't mean more of the "we have advocated with human rights groups and with the State Department specifically for the release of the dissidents in question" mush. I mean yield, or this merger sinks.

Just as the upcoming 2008 Beijing summer Olympics provides a chance to leverage China on releasing dissident writers, now is the perfect time to squeeze Bill and company.

To bastardize LBJ, when you got 'em by the merger glands, their hearts and minds will follow.

For the full transcript of the Nov. 6, 2007, House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on China and Yahoo, go to Rep. Tom Lantos's Web site.

  

About the Authors & Contributors

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson is the former editorial-page editor of the Everett Herald. Follow him on Twitter @phardinjackson