Way back when i was an undergraduate, I dated a girl for several months who was basically everything a young college guy could want: pretty, fun, adventurous and a little dark. She reminded me of a classic femme fatale. (And, yeah, she smoked.)
Eventually, we ended up taking the same class. At first, I thought it was great, as we could sit together and joke around before and after class. But, one day, she convinced me to help her cheat on a test (with admittedly very little effort on her part).
I kind of blew it off at first, but it really started to bother me that she had asked me to cheat. It was on my mind every time I saw her after that, and it made it easier for me to see the other things I didnt like about her. In a matter of weeks, we were no longer dating.
I recently had a similar change of heart about an old friend who has been there to help out through much of my time on the World Wide Web. This friend was always there for me when I needed to find something or send an e-mail or carry out a whole host of Web-based tasks.
In September, however, I learned that this friend, Yahoo, had given information to the Chinese authorities that was used to jail a journalist. This journalist, Shi Tao, was sentenced in April to 10 years in prison for the horrible crime of passing on a memo via Yahoo Mail saying that the Chinese government was worried about unrest during the 2004 anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
When this news came out, I was disappointed, but my sense of outrage was strangely muted. Like many, I think Ive become accustomed to companies helping oppressive governments do things such as censor dissent.
Over time, however, my knowledge of Yahoos complicity has affected my use of Yahoo services—almost as if Shi Tao were there with me. Now, I cant even look at a Yahoo Web page without getting angry.
At the recent Web 2.0 conference, Yahoo Chairman and CEO Terry Semel defended Yahoos actions by saying that companies have to follow the laws of the countries in which they operate. While this may make sense from a business perspective, it doesnt from a moral perspective.
And dont give me that excuse that doing business in China will help end oppression—you can do business there without ratting out your users. Looking back to the McCarthy-era hearings, Americans were dragged through the mud for simply listening to someone talk about communism. Now, major American companies can directly aid an oppressive regime against its people, with nary a peep out of anyone.
I know what youre thinking—that Im going to call for a boycott of Yahoo. But Im not. I dont think it would be possible to run a major IT operation without dealing with companies that are helping China censor and oppress its people.
And I dont expect companies to pass over the best option for a project because a company is complicit in censorship or worse. But, all things being equal, I would pick a product from a company that is more likely to follow U.S. and democratic ideals rather than from one that just does what its wallet tells it to do.
Im going to start untangling myself from Yahoo until I no longer have to use its services. I know many people wont change—to them, a single Chinese journalist doesnt mean much, and their indifference to corporate collusion with oppressive regimes is even deeper than mine was. Im not sure what it will take to make companies rethink their "whatever the Chinese government wants, it gets" policies or to raise public consciousness enough to cause change—probably something on the level of a public execution followed by officials thanking the company that helped them nab the dissident.
I understand why Yahoo gave in to Chinas demands. To technology companies, China isnt just a pretty girl—its the sexiest and most desirable woman imaginable. But like a femme fatale in an old film noir, China has a very dark side. And if you get too deeply involved, youll end up like Fred MacMurray in "Double Indemnity"—with blood on your hands.
Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at email@example.com.