With the help of a Hong Kong legislator Albert Ho, Chinese journalist Shi Tao is suing Yahoo! for its role in his conviction and 10-year jail sentence for "divulging state secrets." In 2004, Yahoo!'s China office (managed at the time by Yahoo!'s Hong Kong subsidiary) handed over the contents and identifying account information of an e-mail that Shi Tao sent to a U.S. based Chinese dissident website, reporting on the Chinese government's plans for a media crackdown. Shi Tao's e-mail account was on yahoo.com.cn, whose servers are housed in China. (More about Shi Tao's case from Human Rights Watch here.) Since Shi's conviction, Yahoo!'s role in the conviction of three other Chinese dissidents has come to light. More on their cases here, here, and here. Yahoo! claims that in order to do business in China it had no choice but to hand over his information in response to an order by Chinese law enforcement. They have done nothing that I know of to assist the families of these victims, nor have Yahoo! executives apologized, shown remorse, or acknowledged that assisting in the jailing of political dissidents is something an American company (or any company that values free speech and human rights) should not do. For more about Yahoo!'s complicity in Chinese censorship and surveillance, read this section of a recent Human Rights Watch report which I helped to write. Also read this open letter by Chinese dissident intellectual Liu Xiaobo to Yahoo!'s Jerry Yang. Liu concludes: "The case of Shi Tao is a warning: those who put profit before all else may not have the luck of gaining a profit. Most likely they will lose both profit and credibility."
Now as Danny Sullivan at SearchEngineWatch points out, Yahoo! has given money for a fellowship at Stanford "aimed at journalists from countries where there are restrictions on freedom of the press, either by governmental agencies or other forces." Clearly they're trying to repair their very sullied moral reputation. Why don't they just do the right thing, publicly apologize to the families of Shi Tao and the others, give financial assistance to their families and set up a fund to pay their medical bills after they come out of jail with their health broken? And set forth very clear, public and global guidelines for how they will find ways to do business around the world without helping to stifle free speech and human rights? They would if they had the backbone.
So far the lesson is: If you are a human rights activist or muckraking journalist who makes your government uncomfortable, and perhaps questions the legitimacy or competence of your current leaders through peaceful speech, can you count on Yahoo! to have the backbone to stand up for YOUR rights, if it came down to that? Based on the Shi Tao precedent, I would not count on them. But rest assured that if they do f*** you over, they'll pay penance money so that some other admirable person can spend a year at an Ivy League University. Then their executives can give speeches about how they really aim to do good in the world... etc... and be applauded by the heads of America's esteemed institutions who will praise them for their wisdom and their goodness...
Danny also very rightly points out Google's recent hypocrisy: while censoring search results in China, it helps to campaign against banned books in the U.S. More details on Google's complicity in Chinese Internet censorship in this section of the Human Rights Watch report. Here is the full report: Race to the Bottom: Corporate Complicity in Chinese Internet Censorship.