Update–Yahoo and Chinese Human Rights

According to a news interview in NPR (National Public Radio), Yahoo provided the email id of Shi Tao to the Chinese authorities. Shi Tao had emailed a bunch a people a memo that Chinese authorities had sent to journalists asking them not cover the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Yahoo’s computer techs traced the email back to Shi Tao and then provided Shi Tao’s email id to the Chinese government, which led to his arrest and imprisonment.

Obviously, this issue raises serious questions about the limits of privacy in a county where privacy is alien concept. Can private corporations be trusted to ensure the privacy of individual data? For example, when I put stuff in my Google Calendar is it within the prerogatives of Google to reveal that information to the government authorities? Importantly, is that data Google’s property or is it my property? Note this is not same as selling your email address to junk mail agents or telemarketers. When the Chinese authorities got wind of Shi Tao’s democracy activities, they promptly sent him off to jail for 10 years for revealing state secrets. Now, I feel that the American Government is creeping in this direction, but that is a post for another day.

Profits and Principles–American Firms and Chinese Human Rights

I have written a paper on the topic of Chinese Human Rights and how the Chinese Government pressures major technology firms such as Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft into complying with illegal requests for data, which they rely on to hunt down online democracy activists and other dissidents.  Today in a hearing before the Congressional Committee on Foreign Affairs, Rep. Tom Lantos blasted the Chief Executive of Yahoo, Jerry Yang and General Counsel Michael Callahan for their unsavory roles in providing information to the Chinese government pro-democracy activist Shi Tao.

Shi Tao was sent to jail for 10 years for engaging in pro-democracy efforts deemed subversive after Yahoo turned over information about his online activities requested by Chinese authorities. Yang and Callahan turned around from the witness table and bowed from their seats to Shi’s mother, Gao Qinsheng, who bowed in return and then began to weep. Yang contended that Yahoo “has been open and forthcoming with this committee at every step of this investigative process” — a contention Lantos and other committee members rejected. 

Yahoo has since acknowledged that 

they had received a subpoena-like document that made reference to suspected “illegal provision of state secrets” — a common charge against political dissidents. Lantos argued that America’s best and brightest companies should not be “playing integral roles in China’s notorious and brutal political repression apparatus.” Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., compared Yahoo’s cooperation with the Chinese government to companies that cooperated with Nazi Germany during World War II. Lawmakers demanded to know what Yahoo would do to help Shi’s family and reacted with derision when neither Yang nor Callahan provided a concrete answer. 

The Chinese government has repeatedly cracked down on individuals by spying on their online activities, tracked cell phone calls, and blocked newspapers and blogs that might expose the Chinese people to learn about their nefarious activities of the government with the assistance of Western companies such as Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft. The Chinese government is not unique in its approach. All repressive governments use this tactic; most recently, Pakistan and Burma have relied on this tactic-shutting down all media-to suppress dissent and political challenge. The most galling thing about this is that increasingly Western companies are allies in these sort of activities. They secretly reveal information to the repressive regimes, which allows them to squelch all forms of dissent, in exchange for market access, i.e., permission to run business in authoritarian countries. So the question before us is this: should these firms be thinking about Profits or Principles? Interestingly, it is the name of the book written by Michael Santoro.  We are going to be looking at Santoro’s book in our seminar next week.