March 29, 2008

The Observers, a publication of France 24 TV, has documented Yahoo! China and MSN posting banner ads and prominent photos of Tibetans the Chinese government have identified as “most wanted” in connection to recent protests inside Tibet.

Yahoo! China pasted a “most wanted” poster across its homepage today in aid of the police’s witch-hunt for 24 Tibetans accused of taking part in the recent riots. MSN China made the same move, although it didn’t go as far as publishing the list on its homepage.

The “most wanted” poster has been published on several Chinese portals like Sina.com and news.qq.com. It reads “The Chinese police have issued a warrant for the arrest of suspected rioters in Tibet” and provides a phone number for informants to use in total anonymity. Along with the text are photos of Tibetans taken during the riots. Of the 24 on the list, two have already been caught.

Yahoo Inc was quick to contact The Observers and say that they did not post any pictures of wanted Tibetans. Of course, they don’t deny that Yahoo! China, their subsidiary, did – and nowhere in The Observers’ report do they say that Yahoo Inc was the perpetrator.

Yahoo and MSN have a long and troubled history when it comes to respecting human rights in China. Both outlets, though Yahoo more prominently, have handed over private user data and emails to help China persecute cyber dissidents. Yahoo has given managerial control of Yahoo! China to Alibaba, a Chinese internet company, who evidently has far lower consideration for human rights and privacy than an American company like Yahoo! But the key distinction is that in a situation where Yahoo Inc could have had strong protections for Chinese users and high standards for content created in China, they refused the power in lieu of a set up that allows the Chinese government to use Yahoo! China as an extension of their police state.

A couple of years ago there was a hearing in the House of Representatives, lead by Tom Lantos and Chris Smith, into the business practices of American internet technology companies in repressive countries like China. They and other members of
Congress harshly criticized the partnership between companies like Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, and Cisco with governments like China. The basic premise was that American companies should not do things in other countries that they wouldn’t do here in the US. As a result, the Global Online Freedom Act of 2006 was authored, and reintroduced in 2007, though it has never become law.

Congressman Lantos put it well at the time, “When I hear these companies say they have changed China, I think that China has changed them—for the worse.” Reading Yahoo! Inc’s pathetic self-defense to The Observers’ reporting makes me think that Lantos was entirely correct. The best Yahoo! Inc can offer is a soft defense that there is a wall separating them from control over who acts in their name. What Yahoo do not offer is that their Chinese edition will cease to help the Chinese government find people who seek independence from China (be they Tibetan or Uighur), Han Chinese dissidents who seek democracy and the rule of law, or practitioners of the Falun Gong who want religious freedom.

It saddens me that Congressman Lantos is not alive today, because I know that he would have met the flailing self-defense of Yahoo! Inc’s complicity in China’s hunt for Tibetans who stood up for their human right of self-determination with a condemnation of unquestionable moral clarity.

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