Executives of Yahoo, the American Internet company, faced tough questions from lawmakers in a congressional hearing about the firm's role in providing information to Chinese authorities that led to the arrest and jailing of a dissident. VOA's Dan Robinson reports from Capitol Hill, where Yahoo officials apologized to family members of jailed dissidents.
In 2005, a Chinese court convicted electronic journalist,
, of divulging state secrets after he forwarded an Internet note about a government order forbidding media organizations from observing the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square uprising.
Information provided to Chinese authorities by Yahoo helped them identify Shi Tao, who is serving a 10 year jail sentence.
In a congressional testimony in 2006, Yahoo general counsel Michael Callahan defended company actions on grounds Yahoo was unaware the information would lead to Shi Tao's arrest, and was required to comply with China's laws.
However, opening Tuesday's hearing, House foreign affairs chairman Tom Lantos said an investigation revealed that Callahan's testimony at the time that Yahoo had no information about the nature of the Chinese government's investigation was false.
Lantos launched a blistering condemnation of the company's handled of the matter and its initial testimony, and referred to the imprisoned Shi Tao in China.
"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 ten long years in a Chinese dungeon for exchanging information publicly - exactly what Yahoo! claims to support in places like China," said Tom Lantos.
Callahan apologized, explaining that his original testimony was based on a lack of information concerning the Beijing State Security Bureau demand for information:
"I now know that the demand did contain additional information, that the investigation related to state secrets," said Callahan. "If I had had this additional information, I would have made it clear [to the committee] that we were aware of the general law in question, though not the specific nature of the case, and not the political nature."
Yahoo chief executive Jerry Yang apologized to the mother of Shi Tao, and the wife of another jailed dissident (Wang Xiaoning) who were observing the hearing, and sought to underscore the company's commitment to freedom of expression, privacy and human rights.
"These very serious human issues at stake cause me great concern," said Yang. "I have invested my professional life in this company and I believe in the Internet and its incredible power. I also know that governments around the world have imprisoned people for simply speaking their minds online. That runs counter to all of my personal and professional beliefs."
However, both men faced a stream of questions about steps Yahoo is taking to avoid similar situations in the future.
Lawmakers also criticized Yahoo for refusing so far to offer compensation to family members of Shi Tao and others imprisoned in China.
Human rights and press freedom organizations cite the case of Shi Tao, in urging Internet companies to develop new guidelines for operations in authoritarian societies.
Yahoo executive Callahan had this exchange with Republican Dana Rohrabacher:
ROHRABACHER: "Is it your corporation position that you will say no to requests of authoritarian governments when they ask for such help in the future?"
CALLAHAN: "Sir, compliance with local law in markets like China or Vietnam or others that might restrict free expression is complicated for a couple of reasons. First and foremost."
ROHRABACHER: "So the answer is, you will comply?"
CALLAHAN: "No, sir."
ROHRABACHER: "I mean that was a yes or no question."
Yang says the company is engaged in what he called a formal human rights dialogue and efforts with other Internet technology companies and human rights groups to develop an industry code of conduct:
"To create a set of global principle and operating procedures on freedom of expression and privacy, to guide company behavior when faced with laws, regulations and policy that interfere with human rights," he said.
Legislation pending in Congress called the Global Online Freedom Act which would prohibit U.S. companies from disclosing information to governments unless the U.S. Department of Justice determines the request is for legitimate law enforcement purposes.
Yahoo faces a lawsuit in a San Francisco federal court brought by family members of jailed dissidents.