Tom Lantos may have made his very last stand for human rights last November when he recalled Yahoo! executives to challenge their earlier testimony surrounding the Shi Tao case. Shi Tao is a Chinese activist serving ten years in prison on trumped up charges and Yahoo! stand accused of handing over information on Tao to the police. Yahoo! management had originally testified they had no specific information on the nature of the Chinese police investigation and were just complying with a routine request. But later an NGO produced evidence that Yahoo had the relevant police information all along. The Yahoo! explanation: bungled communications. And it was this that earned Yahoo! CEO Jerry Wang and Michael Callahan one last tongue lashing from Tom Lantos. Richard Koman wrote a number of good blog posts on this a few months ago.
John Palfrey, Executive Director of the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School brings a more moderate voice to this debate:
The hard problem at the core of this issue is that police come to technology companies every day to ask for information about their users. It is a fair point for technology companies to make that they often cannot know much about the reason for the policeman’s inquiry. It could be completely legitimate: an effort to prevent a crime from happening or bringing a criminal to justice.
Yahoo! has been the company that has been most tarred, in some ways, for a problem that is industry-wide, and should be resolved on an industry-wide (or broader, such as law or international law) basis.
Understandable enough but stakeholders rightly expect corporate accountability on this so how to balance what is possible in China and elsewhere with what is right? After the initial Congressional hearings a chastened industry began a series of dialogues facilitated by Business for Social Responsibility and the Centre for Democracy and Technology towards development of a voluntary code for Principles on Free Expression and Privacy to agree a code to guide future action. The coalition is a big tent including Yahoo!, Microsoft, Vodafone and Google together with NGOs active on this issue including Human Rights Watch & Reporters Without Borders amongst others.
And because of these voluntary efforts, Palfrey for one was willing to give Yahoo! some credit:
Yahoo! has been a very constructive player in the ongoing effort to come up with a code of conduct for companies in this position (along with Google, Microsoft, and others). And Yahoo! has been working hard to establish internal practices to head off similar situations and voicing its concern about Chinese policies in this arena. Their efforts since the Shi Tao case on this front have been laudable.
The coalition was due to report at the end of last year but I fear the November Lantos hearings and now the proposed acquisition may have delayed progress. Now that Lantos has passed on and with the possibility of Yahoo! being absorbed by Microsoft, their collective legacy might be the first steps towards a voluntary code of conduct to protect human rights and freedom of expression on the internet.