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Yahoo has called for broad co-operation among internet, media and communication companies and the US government to counter Chinese censorship on the web.
The embattled internet company is turning to the Bush administration to take a stronger stance with the Chinese on behalf of US internet and media companies as it faces increasing criticism in Washington and among human rights activists about its decision to hand to the Chinese government personal information about two of its users – actions that activists say resulted in the imprisonment of two Chinese dissidents.
Congress members in Washington have singled out Yahoo and a handful of other internet companies, including Google, for their perceived capitulation to Chinese restrictions on free speech and called them to a hearing of the sub-committee on human rights to discuss the issues on Wednesday.
Michael Callahan, Yahoo’s general counsel, said in an interview with the Financial Times at the weekend that Yahoo’s compliance in the past with Chinese law has led to some “serious and distressing consequences” but that the issue was not one that faced the company alone.
“[This is] everyone’s dilemma: operate in a country and comply with laws that lack transparency, or withdraw,” he said.
“No one company, no one industry can tackle this on its own. We very much look forward to taking this [to Washington],” Mr Callahan added, though he declined to comment on discussions the company has already had with some US officials.
Yahoo also said that, as part of its new approach, it would only comply with a government’s request to restrict search results “as narrowly as possible”, with an aim to achieve “maximum transparency” for its users.
Mr Callahan emphasised that Yahoo’s decision to enter the Chinese market in the 1990s and maintain servers on the mainland in order to offer users e-mail services had, unlike newer entrants to the market who do not keep servers in China, left the company with no choice but to comply with local laws.
He said in the case of Shi Tao, an outspoken journalist and user of Yahoo’s e-mail service who was jailed for 10 years last April for revealing details about a Communist party media crackdown, the Chinese government had given Yahoo a “lawful order”.
“It is not a judgement call, we do in fact comply with local law,” Mr Callahan said, emphasising that when the company received demands from the Chinese government, it was not provided with information about the reason the information was being sought.
Although Yahoo has been called to Congress with Google, its rival, critics of both companies agree a gulf exists between Yahoo’s actions and those taken by Google, which has only agreed to censor search results on its Chinese website and has said it would not offer users e-mail services until it was confident the Chinese government would not force it to give information about users to authorities.
Yahoo no longer operates its own company in China but maintains a $1bn investment there through its stake in Alibaba.
Mr Callahan declined to comment on how many times the company had been forced to give information about its users to Chinese authorities.