One of the more interesting and memorable (and, in retrospect, utterly depressing) moments at the Web2 conference last week occurred when John Battelle asked Terry Semel about Yahoo in China, and the recent case in which Yahoo turned over information to Chinese authorities about a Chinese journalist, Shi Tao, that led to his imprisonment for 10 years.
I listened carefully, and I am pretty sure that Semel’s justification for this was: "We have to adhere to the laws of the countries in which we do business." That has been their consistent line of defense since early September.
It all seemed so reasonable, so sensible, so justifiable when he said it, even if there was a slight smell of bullshit about the claim. But as I’ve thought about it more, I am shocked and ashamed I didn’t stand up and scream, and that others didn’t either. This justification and kind of excuse is as outrageously offensive as the actual act.
A few years ago, a book came out about IBM’s collaboration with the Nazis in the late 1930s; specifically, that IBM provided the punch card technology that enable the Nazi government to identify and catalog Jews living in Germany. I have still not read the book, but there is a good summary from a Business Week article from the time here.
I found, and still find, that discovery stunning, and the collaboration by IBM with the Nazis reprehensible and beyond justification. Of course, it may be unfair to equate that act with what Yahoo, Cisco and others are doing now; no one is claiming Chinese authorities are using US technology to engage in genocide. (Remember, though, that preceding regimes had no problem killing tens of millions of Chinese citizens).
But isn’t it bad enough that Yahoo, Cisco and others are actively collaborating with and supporting the current Chinese government in their systematic, clear, unambiguous repression of basic human rights? Isn’t that bad enough? Or, is imprisonment and repression not enough, and do they only cross the line when millions are killed as a result of their actions?
The argument (Semel made this, too) is that we may not like their laws, we may not like their human rights record, but it is better to engage than walk away. I spent two years traipsing through China while working for Real, and I actually buy the constructive engagement argument in general terms.
But I think you have to draw the line when you at active support for and cooperation with policies and programs that clearly violate human rights. Turning over Shi Tao’s name was such a clear violation of human rights. Period. So is the provisioning of routers by Cisco to enable China and Myanmar to filter out speech those regimes don’t like or approve.
I side with those beginning to boycott Yahoo! I’ll stay away from their products from now on, including the beloved flickr and my yahoo and yahoo mail. And I hope the smart, sensitive and thoughtful folks who work at Yahoo that I’ve met will press on their bosses to do better. And maybe the famous bloggers will take a break from their pet causes and more parochial issues to devote some time to this.