Boycott threat shames Yahoo
- scmp - Tuesday, September 13, 2005
Boycott threat shames YahooMICHAEL LOGAN, BIEN PEREZ and JAMIL ANDERLINI in Hangzhou
Bloggers and human rights groups are calling for a boycott of Yahoo after the United States internet giant supplied information to the Chinese central government that led to a 10-year prison sentence for mainland journalist Shi Tao.
Privacy International said a boycott would send a clear message to Yahoo, while Reporters Without Borders said it would ask institutional shareholders to raise the issue of Yahoo's behaviour with the company's management.
Several posters to internet forums and blog sites criticised Yahoo for its actions and promised to quit using the company's services.
"I do not intend to click on Yahoo ever again, and I'm urging everyone I know to do the same," one internet poster said.
The controversy surrounding Yahoo's involvement in the case highlights the risks foreign internet companies take on as they pursue the lucrative mainland market: complying with the government's strict demands on regulation of the internet could end up damaging a company's reputation back home.
This is not the first time a foreign internet company has come under fire for its actions in China. Critics have blasted Microsoft for censoring words such as "freedom" and "democracy" in its blogging service MSN Spaces, while Google has been accused of removing sensitive pages from its search index.
But the Yahoo case is different because the company's actions resulted in the imprisonment of a journalist accused of passing state secrets via e-mail.
Vincent Drossel, head of the Asia-Pacific desk at Reporters Without Borders, said: "It is the life and freedom of a man, Shi Tao, that has been jeopardised because Yahoo gave information to the Chinese police."
Reaction to the case already shows signs of growing into a wide campaign aimed at pressuring Yahoo to change its business practices in China, much in the same way that consumer activism forced apparel and shoe manufacturers such as Nike to raise labour standards in the country.
Julien Pain, head of the internet desk at Reporters Without Borders, said: "So far, we have not asked for any embargo on Yahoo products. But I have received many e-mails and I've seen posts on news groups saying that people didn't trust Yahoo any more and they were about to change their e-mail accounts."
Yahoo said it had no choice but to comply with the law when its Hong Kong unit was asked to turn over details to mainland authorities concerning e-mail account huoyan1989@....
Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang was unapologetic when reporters pressed the issue during an internet conference held in Hangzhou at the weekend.
"To be doing business in China or anywhere else in the world we have to comply with local law. I will not put our employees at risk," Mr Yang said.
"When it comes to seeking information on our users, we have a very clear-cut set of rules that any government has to engage with us through court documents, legal documents and legal procedures.
Lawrence Sussman, a lawyer at O'Melveny & Myers in Beijing, said failure to comply with the government's demands would have meant dire legal ramifications for Yahoo's mainland executives.
"The company could be in violation of the state secrets law, which would be a criminal offence, and any officer who is personally responsible for making that decision would be subject to potential criminal liability," he said.
To most observers, Yahoo's willingness to co-operate with government attempts to control the internet seems to indicate the company - along with other foreign players - has put making money ahead of other values, such as freedom of expression and respect for human rights.
Edward Yu, chief executive of Analysys International, said foreign internet companies must walk a fine line as they wanted to please Beijing and their customers at home.
"Any company that wants to do business in China has to balance the economic benefits and the probable outrage from their home country or other developed countries," Mr Yu said.
But human rights should not be compromised, Mr Pain said.
"I think at some point you have to tell the Chinese authorities that you won't respect their laws if it infringes on universal values," he said. "And if it goes against your universal principles, you have to say: `No, I won't comply with your demands.'"
Stephen Frost, research fellow at the Southeast Asia Research Centre at the City University of Hong Kong, said foreign internet companies were too caught up with making money in China and had failed to think through the potential fallout should they be called on to behave in ways unsettling to customers at home.
"While it is easy to get seduced by all the money that can be made out of these new technologies in China, there is a flip side to the coin. It's taken Yahoo a number of years to develop a good reputation, but it has taken a couple of days in the blog frontline and mainstream media to bring that reputation into disrepute," he said.
"This is the kind of thing that people don't forget. It will always be there on the internet. Whenever you type in Yahoo and China in the search engine, these are the sorts of things that are always going to pop up. People will always sort of refer back to them: `You know Yahoo was the informant for the mainland police.'"
Translation of criminal verdict against Shi Tao
"Shi Tao leaked this information to an overseas hostile element, taking advantage of the fact that he was working overtime alone in his office to connect to the internet through his phone line and use his personal e-mail account (huoyan1989@...) to send his notes.
"Account holder information furnished by Yahoo Holdings (Hong Kong) Ltd, which confirms that for IP address 22.214.171.124 at 11:32.17pm on April 20, 2004, the corresponding user information was as follows: user telephone number: 0731-4376362 located at the Contemporary Business News office in Hunan; address: 2F, Building 88, Jianxiang New Village, Kaifu District, Changsha."
Source: Reporters Without Borders (www.rsf.org)
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