Yahoo! needs to click its refresh button on Internet Censorship in China

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By Tony Cruz, AIUSA’s Business and Economic Relations Group

Yahoo! held its annual shareholder meeting on June 25th — the first meeting with the company’s new CEO, Carol Bartz. In the meeting, Ms. Bartz attempted to show a new face of Yahoo; a bolder and progressive “no-nonsense” Yahoo. It was my third Yahoo! shareholder meeting and a chance to see if Yahoo!’s new face meant new business practices that would respect human rights. I presented two questions:

  1. Since 2006, what concrete steps has Yahoo taken to address the problem of Internet censorship in China?
  2. Will you publicly support the Global Online Freedom Act; legislation that would give you the power to fight the Chinese government?

Ms. Bartz responded:

Okay, I’m going to go real simple here. Yahoo is not incorporated to fix China. I’m sorry. It wasn’t incorporated to fix China. It was incorporated to give people a free flow of information. Ten years ago the company made a mistake but you can’t hold us up as the bad boy forever. We have worked better, harder, faster than most companies to respect human rights and to try and make a difference. But it is not our job to fix the Chinese government. It’s that simple. We will respect human rights, we will do what’s right, but we’re not going to take on every government in the world as our mandate. That’s not the mandate that the shareholders gave us.

Not only did Ms. Bartz avoid answering my questions, she also seemed to have misconstrued their meaning. Amnesty International members are not asking Yahoo! to “fix” China. And we haven’t singled out Yahoo! in our campaign against Internet censorship. We’ve targeted Microsoft and Google, too. Because Yahoo!’s actions have led to the highly publicized imprisonment of two Chinese dissidents, we’ve asked the company to call for the release of Shi Tao and to adopt business practices that actively support human rights. You can take action right now to remind them.

After a civil suit was settled with Shi Tao’s family, Yahoo! attempted to “fix” itself. Yahoo! hired a new CEO and implemented a new marketing strategy to distance itself from its tarnished image. The company even created a Business and Human Rights Program. But Shi Tao remains in prison and Yahoo! continues to censor its search engine in China. (I wonder how that technology has helped the Chinese government to block browser searches using the key-word Uighur this week.) So, I still don’t understand how Yahoo! “will respect human rights” and “will do what’s right” when the company hasn’t addressed the problem of Internet censorship in China – a problem that limits innovation and restricts freedom of expression.

The Internet is vital in bringing change to China, and increasingly so around the world. It appears the Obama administration agree, since they objected to China’s mandated web filtering software. Former Amnesty USA Chair Chip Pitts has been blogging about tech companies and democratic rights and the reaction in the US Senate, following the news that Nokia provided technology to the Iranian government that was used to monitor and repress protesters and dissidents. Hmm… doesn’t that sound familiar?

Pitts makes a good point: whether the Internet’s “liberalizing effect” on the flow of information will continue greatly depends on how Internet technology companies, NGOs and governments interact. Take action and remind Yahoo!, Google and Microsoft that they, too, bear the burden of promoting the freedom of information no matter where they operate. It’s time to get behind the Global Online Freedom Act.