Did any good come out of Yahoo! chief executive Jerry Yang’s appearance before the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday?
Yang and his company got the expected tongue lashing from chairman Tom Lantos, a fierce defender of human rights, over Yahoo!’s turning over of e-mail records to Chinese officials that led to the arrest and imprisonment of Shi Tao, a Chinese dissident journalist. The family got an apology from Taiwan-born Yang and some post-hearing discussions between Shi’s mother and Yang and Yahoo!’s general counsel, Michael Callaghan, may lead to Yahoo! settling the suit the family has brought against it.
But the rest was theatre, another exercise in Congressional China bashing on the one side and a recitation of the lesser-of-two-evils argument on the other: i.e., despite the censorship Chinese know more about the world thanks to companies like Yahoo!.
But most of all it was a reminder that it is hard for internet companies to stand up to Chinese officials when China is such a potentially lucrative market.
Yahoo!, Google, Microsoft and others are working on guidelines for companies that operate in countries like China that censor the Internet, though Yahoo! having sold Yahoo! China to Alibaba, in which it has a 40% stake, is able to claim arms-length distance from its operations there. Congress might just pass law to constrain U.S. tech companies from cooperating with internet-censoring regimes (the House passed a bill last month) but the problem with both the mandatory and voluntary approaches would be enforcement.
That all said, the issues and the solutions for Western companies operating in China were no different at the end of Tuesday than they were before the hearing opened in the morning.