WASHINGTON—Yahoo officials took a verbal beating Nov. 6 as a House of Representatives panel probed the company's role in the jailing of a Chinese dissident and the subsequent "false testimony" Yahoo provided Congress about the incident.
CEO Jerry Yang and Michael Callahan, Yahoo's general counsel, were the only witnesses at the testy three-plus hour hearing before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
"If you think our witnesses today are uncomfortable sitting in this climate-controlled room and accounting for their company's spineless and irresponsible actions, imagine how life is for Shi Tao, spending 10 long years in a Chinese dungeon for exchanging information publicly—exactly what Yahoo claims to support in places like China," committee Chairman Tom Lantos, D.-Calif., said
A reporter and editor for a Chinese newspaper, Shi was arrested in his home after posting material on a overseas Web site under a pseudonym about a Beijing crackdown on media and democracy activists. 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. He was sentenced to prison in 2004.
To read more about Yahoo's denial that it purposefully mislead the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, click here.
At a February 2006 Congressional hearing, Callahan told the panel he "had no information about the nature of the investigation." Lantos said he later learned Yahoo knew more about the investigation than it originally admitted. Earlier this month, Callahan admitted he subsequently found information that showed Yahoo was aware that Shi was suspected of "illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities," a charge frequently invoked against political dissidents in China.
In a Nov. 1 statement to the panel, Callahan apologized for not getting back to the committee to correct his testimony.
"Yahoo claims this is just one big misunderstanding, that Yahoo's false testimony was really just a matter of an internal miscommunication," Lantos said. "This was inexcusably negligent at best, and deliberately deceptive behavior at worst."
As he did in his Nov. 1 statement, Callahan again insisted he told the truth, at least as he knew it during the 2006 hearing.
"I believe that while my testimony could have been more precise, the fundamental point of my testimony remains unchanged," he said. "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."
Page 2: Yahoo Takes a Congressional Mugging
Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., scoffed at Callahan's statement, noting that Yahoo's 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?" Smith said. "This is astonishing. It's one thing not know something, it's another thing altogether to choose not to know."
To make things even more uncomfortable for Yahoo, the committee staff arranged for Shi's mother to be sitting in the first row behind Yang and Callahan. Yang politely bowed to Shi's mother before taking his seat.
"I'd 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. I've 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."
Read more here about the House panel accusing Yahoo of false testimony.
Yang noted Yahoo no longer operates a local subsidiary in China, as it did when it cooperated with the Chinese government in Shi's imprisonment.
In 2005, Yahoo sold its Chinese operations to Alibaba in exchange for 40 percent of Alibaba. Yang holds one of four seats on the parent company of Alibaba. Yang said he has no control over the day-to-day operations of Alibaba or Yahoo China.
Rep. Brad Sherman, D.-Calif., pressed Yang on whether Yahoo has provided any "humanitarian aid" to Shi's family.
"We could have done better and we've apologized for that," Yang said.
Sherman replied that that wasn't an answer to his question. Yang finally said Yahoo would consider aid to Shi's family. Not satisfied, Sherman pointed to the civil lawsuit Shi's family has brought against Yahoo. "You could settle that in favor of the family," Sherman said.
"We will absolutely consider doing that," Callahan said.
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