Yahoos Lesson in Karma

Opinion: With any luck, the World Organization for Human Rights' lawsuit against Yahoo will force other companies to rethink how they work in China.

A core principle in many world religions is the concept of karma, which in its most basic interpretation is that all actions have consequences.

Of course, I like to think of karma in a more western-slang sort of way, namely in that it means that what goes around, comes around.

Thats why Im glad to see that a certain major Internet company may be seeing the effects of some of its own bad karma.

Recently, the World Organization for Human Rights USA filed a lawsuit against Yahoo for human rights violations. The organization is going after Yahoo because Yahoo provided information to the Chinese government that has led to the arrest (and claimed torture) of several dissidents and a Chinese journalist.

I wrote about one of these cases a year and a half ago, and in that column explained how, because of my disgust with Yahoos actions, I would be trying my best to stop using Yahoo services. However, I also admitted that, given the overwhelming desire that most companies have to do business with China at any cost, I doubted that there would be any change in companies willingness to censor and inform on their customers in order to keep the Chinese government happy.

Now with the suit from the World Organization for Human Rights USA, Yahoo will finally get its feet put to the fire and start to feel the consequences of the negative actions that it has taken on the behalf of the Chinese government.

Also, Im hoping that this will lead other companies to rethink how they work in China and just what deals with the devil that they may be making in order to gain access to Chinas giant market.

Throughout all of these cases where someone has ended up imprisoned (often for as long as 10 years) for doing things that would be perfectly legal in most of the world, the excuse that Yahoo executives have continually trotted out is that they have to follow the laws of the countries where they do business.

Thats a nice convenient reason and it seems to have a good deal of logic behind it. Its also a load of garbage.

The lawsuit states that in 2002, Yahoo signed the Internet Society of Chinas Public Pledge on Self-Discipline for the Chinese Internet Industry, which among other things meant that Yahoo agreed to help monitor and censor information relating to state security or social stability and to report any offending online expression.

Given some of the cases that have led to the arrest of dissidents and the stretches that were made to say that their actions led to any of these things, I would argue that all businesses immediately stop any corporate or employee use of any Yahoo services (or those of any other company that has signed this pledge).

Hmmm. Youre an employee of a business with extensive U.S. military contracts who is working in China. The Chinese government believes that in the interest of state security, it needs access to all of your communications and it knows you are using Yahoo services. Well, Yahoo says it has to follow Chinese laws, so there goes all of your information.

Or maybe you just work for a regular company that happens to compete with a Chinese company. Since most major Chinese companies are partially owned by the government, theres a pretty good case that getting your Yahoo correspondence to help the Chinese company gain an edge on your company is in the interest of security and stability. But hey, dont blame Yahoo; it will just be obeying the laws of the country in which its doing business.

The other interesting thing is that in both of these hypothetical (though possible) cases, Yahoo would be breaking U.S. laws. Thats the kind of catch-22 that would almost make a company wish it had never signed that pledge.

Well see how the lawsuit on the behalf of the dissidents proceeds. At the minimum the bad publicity and the potential calls for legislative reforms that it creates should be painful for Yahoo.

But even if Yahoo loses the case, the monetary punishment could be peanuts compared to what it earns in China. As long as companies see big dollar signs in China, there will be businesses willing to agree to any form of censorship and oppressive aid.

They should remember the law of karma, though: They may learn to regret the negative actions that they are taking now.

Jim Rapoza can be reached at

Web Resources:
Home of the World Organization for Human Rights USA
Read the Internet Society of Chinas pledge


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