Yahoo – Poster Boy for Internet Censorship

July 1, 2010

By Tony Cruz, Business and Human Rights Coordination Group

Shi Tao

Yahoo – the company responsible for the 10 year prison sentence of Chinese journalist, Shi Tao – “should be held up as the poster boy of good behavior.”

And thus was the overall tone of the Yahoo Shareholder Meeting I attended on June 24, 2010.

For four years in a row now, I have attended these Yahoo Shareholder Meetings on behalf of Amnesty International. Accompanied this year by Amnesty International Field Organizer, Will Butkus, we set out with our remaining goal to keep the pressure on Yahoo to push for the release of Shi Tao.

Five years ago, Shi Tao sent an email to a pro-democracy U.S. website about the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre; an email which would put Yahoo on the human rights violations map when it gave Shi Tao’s personal user information to the Chinese government.

During this year’s shareholder meeting, Yahoo CEO, Carol Bartz, remained adamant about Yahoo’s desire to move past this issue. In her mind, so it seems that Yahoo has done enough. Well, it’s not enough. The bottom line is that Yahoo turned over Shi Tao’s information to the Chinese government. They violated international human rights, and as Bartz said last year “they made a mistake”

Amnesty's William Butkis and Tony Cruz at the Yahoo! shareholders meeting

So Yahoo can try to spin this in their favor all they’d like, but the facts remain the same. As long as Shi Tao still sits in prison, then Yahoo hasn’t done enough to get him out.

Yahoo has powerful influence in China that it can leverage to ensure Shi Tao’s release. For starters, Yahoo can pressure Chinese Internet company, Alibaba – which controls Yahoo! China in exchange for Yahoo’s 40% ownership share of Alibaba. As one of the largest and most powerful Internet companies in the world, Yahoo even has influence with the Chinese government. And it is up to Yahoo to use that influence until the day Shi Tao is released.

Below is the conversation between Amnesty International and Yahoo CEO, Carol Bartz, at the meeting (listen to full webcast here):

Cruz: Hi, Ms. Bartz. Tony Cruz here with Amnesty International. I was here last year and brought up the issue of internet censorship and Shi Tao, and when asked a question about this issue, you were quoted saying “That Yahoo is not incorporated to fix China. I’m sorry. It was incorporated to give people a free flow of information and ten years ago the company made a mistake, but you can’t hold us up as the bad boy forever.”

I understand that whenever we come to these meetings it’s an inconvenience. By the time I came up to bat last year, there were two colleagues who spoke on this issue about Shi Tao. It’s an inconvenience and all I can say is you take that feeling of how you felt inconvenienced and that discomfort you felt and you multiply it by a million and it pales in comparison to what this individual must feel like being in prison now for 5 years of10 year sentence.

We understand that Yahoo would like to see this whole debacle go away and disappear, but I think the reason it doesn’t and continues to follow this company is because people weren’t happy about it. I talked to various people who work for the company and people who don’t and I always find it interesting because the ones who do say “You know, I wish, I wish we could do the right thing and call for his release and just end this all because it continues to follow us and it’s a stigma that continues to follow us and this company.”

You know, the reason why around 9,000 activists contacted Yahoo this year and called for the release of Shi Tao is because the feeling is that it’s going to take something bold to repair the damage that has been done to the company’s reputation by this decision.

Companies are making bold moves all the time in the human rights area. You look at what Google did four months ago when it stopped censoring in China and redirected people to Hong Kong. It takes steps like that and so…you know in the past we’ve asked, well, can you call for the release of Shi Tao. I understand that those types of decisions aren’t made lightly just like I’m sure Google’s decision wasn’t made lightly, but we ask you to reconsider, really think about it, because it’s an important step towards advancing human rights and repairing a decision that continues to follow this company. Thank you.

Bartz: Well, the good news is that we have actively called for his release through the State Department and through all the legal channels we could. Very, very actively called for his release. Listen, it’s more than a million times. We’re not sitting in jail. We can’t possibly know how bad this is. But the fact of the matter is, we can’t do a jail break. So, working with our State Department…working with people in human rights and Amnesty groups, of course compensated his family.

Yahoo has done a lot of really good things. We didn’t have to do what Google did 4 months ago because we don’t operate in China. We haven’t operated in China in 5 years. So, they continue to operate in China and be censored. We’re not doing that anymore. We’re not in China. So, I think we’re actually a step ahead.

So, I would actually hold Yahoo up as the poster boy for good behavior in this case. And we will not be happy as you won’t until he’s released, hopefully before 5 years. Thank you.

Soon after, Will Butkus followed up with a question regarding Yahoo’s stake in the Chinese search engine, Alibaba, as she was so adamant that Yahoo does not operate in China anymore. Bartz stated the following:

Bartz: We do not have operational control over Alibaba, but we have worked very closely with them to make it clear on their various sites to their users that the information is under the laws of China and under the laws of that land. We really worked hard and they took our advice on that, but we don’t have operational control over that company.

So they manage the company. It is a Chinese-run company in China and they really set the policies, but obviously, they were with us at the beginning and realized why we had transferred or sold our rights to them. So I think that they have a lot of reasons why they listen to us, but we don’t run it.