Just one week after a public shaming before Congress, Yahoo settled on Nov. 13 a civil lawsuit accusing the Sunnyvale, Calif., Internet power of cooperating with Chinese authorities in the jailing of journalist Shi Tao for a decade. Terms of the settlement were not disclosed.
A reporter and editor for the Chinese publication Contemporary Business News, Shi was arrested in his home 2004 after posting material on an overseas Web site under a pseudonym about a Beijing crackdown on media and democracy activists. The Chinese government claimed Shis postings violated state secrecy laws.
The Chinese government found Shi in Beijing after Yahoo provided information about his e-mail account, including his IP address, log-on history and the contents of his e-mail. The family of another jailed journalist, Wang Xiaoning, was also part of the lawsuit. Wang was arrested in 2002 after Yahoo gave Chinese police information linking him to anonymous e-mails and other online political postings.
Last week, members of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee castigated Yahoo for its role in the now infamous affair that highlighted the difficulties of U.S. Internet companies that do business with China. Yahoo claimed in a 2006 congressional hearing it was only following a legal order by the Chinese government and that Yahoo “had no information about the nature of the investigation,” a statement the company was ultimately forced to retract.
After Yahoos chief legal counsel Michael Callahans 2006 testimony, Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos discovered documents showing Chinese police had written Yahoo specifying that Shi was suspected of “illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities,” a charge frequently invoked against political dissidents in China. Lantos hauled Callahan and Yahoo CEO Jerry Lang back before the panel Nov. 6.
“I believe that while my testimony could have been more precise, the fundamental point of my testimony remains unchanged,” Callahan told lawmakers Nov. 6. “We did not know the case related to a journalist, dissident activity, or that it was a political case when Yahoo China was required to provide the demanded information.”
The committee was unimpressed, noting that Yahoos lawyers told the committee staff almost a dozen people helped prep Callahan for his 2006 testimony.
“How could a dozen lawyers prepare another lawyer to testify before Congress without anyone thinking to look at the document that had caused this hearing to be called?” Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., said. “This is astonishing. Its one thing to not know something; its another thing altogether to choose not to know.”
To make things even more uncomfortable for Yahoo, the committee staff arranged for Shis mother, Gao Qinsheng, to sit in the first row behind Yang and Callahan. Yang politely bowed to Shis mother and apologized.
“Id like to take a moment to recognize the parents of dissidents behind us and to personally apologize,” Yang said during his testimony. “The very serious human issues at stake cause me great concern. Ive invested my professional life in this company. I also know that governments around the world have imprisoned people for simply speaking their minds online. That runs counter to all my personal and professional beliefs.”
Yis mother wept during the apology.
Rep. Brad Sherman, D.-Calif., pressed Yang on whether Yahoo had provided any “humanitarian aid” to Shis family.
“We could have done better and weve apologized for that,” Yang said, refusing to specifically commit to compensation for Shis family.
Not satisfied, Sherman pointed to the civil lawsuit Shis family had brought against Yahoo. “You could settle that in favor of the family,” Sherman said.
“We will absolutely consider doing that,” Callahan said. A week later, Yahoo did just that.
“It took a tongue-lashing from Congress before these high-tech titans did the right thing and coughed up some concrete assistance for the family of a journalist whom Yahoo had helped send to jail,” Lantos said in a statement.
“What a disgrace. When I asked Yahoo officials 21 months ago whether the company had reached out to the family to offer help, I was appalled to learn the answer. It was infuriating last week to hear that the company still had not reached out. In my view, todays settlement is long overdue.”