I've been so busy talking to journalists about this in between helping my students cover Hong Kong's district council elections, I haven't had a chance to write about the news that Yahoo! has settled the lawsuit against them by relatives of Shi Tao and Wang Xiaoning, two of the dissidents sitting in jail thanks in part to Yahoo!'s cooperation with the Chinese authorities. I won't repeat all the facts that everybody is reporting. Just a few quick thoughts.
Yahoo! has definitely evolved over the past two years since Shi Tao was sentenced. They started out on the defensive, with statements that sounded as if they believed that Shi Tao, dissident Wang Xiaoning and at least two other people were acceptable collateral damage in the noble effort to bring the Internet to China. After being featured as number one negative example on the cover of at least two human rights reports, yelled at in congress twice, a victims' lawsuit, and countless anti-Yahoo campaigns by free speech and human rights groups, they are finally doing what many have been advising them to do for some time: admit that their actions have helped to ruin human lives, and admit that they made mistakes. It is unfortunate that it has taken two years for their executives to meet with the family members of Shi Tao and Wang Xiaoning, offer to help them financially and legally, commit to helping them get out of jail, and commit to serious efforts to prevent such situations from happening again. Yahoo! spent two years digging themselves into a hole of mistrust and lost good will which one settlement alone won't fill in. But it's definitely a start.
I hope Yahoo! and all Internet companies have learned something from this: that they've got to think through the privacy and human rights implications of their international business decisions before they launch new services in any market. Or they will pay later. And there will be broader implications for global free speech and the future of global information flows. The Internet could get so balkanized as a result of short-term business decisions that it loses much of its long-term value.
Here are a few comments of note that I've seen around the web:
Bobbie Johnson writes in the Guardian's Comment is free:
The suppression of online information is fast becoming a crucial political question, with China now the world's second largest country on the internet population, and expected to overtake America within just a few years.
As a result of such growth and success, Beijing is now setting the standard for dozens of countries around the world who are following suit and heavily censoring the internet - Saudi Arabia, Iran, Vietnam, Syria, and (as we saw recently) Burma.
What happens to the web when its most powerful group of users live under a regime that keeps them blinkered?
Somebody needs to take a stand. But if Silicon Valley's finest are happy to pocket profits from repression, and China's internet elite are unable or unwilling to help, who will fight for us?
Peter Navarro points out in the Baltimore Sun that singling out Yahoo! may miss the point given how many U.S. companies contribute to censorship and surveillance in China and elsewhere:
... it is ultimately shortsighted to single out Yahoo for the kind of behavior now common to many big U.S. companies operating in China. That's why we need to have a much bigger discussion about how to engage economically and politically with China. It's also why the proposed Global Online Freedom Act, which would make it unlawful for U.S. companies to filter Internet search results or turn over user information, should not be viewed as a magic bullet but rather as the start of that debate.
Vindu Goel writes:
But Congress was hardly in a position to cast stones at Yahoo. Our lawmakers have systematically undermined Americans’ civil rights over the past few years. Thanks to the laws passed in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Bush Administration can pretty much ask for — and get — any information it wants on anybody. It can hold people without charges. And it can use torture techniques such as waterboarding with impunity.
If Congress really cares about protecting people’s Internet privacy, how about stopping AT&T and other phone companies from turning over Americans’ phone and Internet records without a court order?
The AT&T case is far more egregious than the Yahoo one: essentially, the phone giant gave the National Security Agency a giant wiretap on all U.S. Internet traffic — no explanation or justification required. Backed by the Bush administration, AT&T and other phone companies now want Congress to immunize them against private lawsuits for aiding and abetting the government’s illegal snooping.
So far, our lawmakers are showing every sign of rolling over once again.
That’s the real travesty here. Civil rights begin at home.
We face a global problem. Yahoo! isn't the only problem company and the Chinese government isn't the only problem government. We need a global corporate code of conduct and global solutions.