Yahoo! and China

I work at Yahoo!, but I have a small role and no influence on or knowledge of corporate decisions or policies about China, or any contact (beyond a couple of meetings of fellow employees at a conference) with Yahoo!’s Chinese business partners. This post is personal opinion only.
The way that Yahoo! has handled the jailing of four Chinese dissidents (based on personal information handed over by Yahoo! to the Chinese government) has so far been to say that it is powerless to change the political reality and laws in China, and this is surely true. In hearings about the issue at the U.S. Congress, Yahoo! has focused on sort of asking the U.S. government to pass laws (like the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, as Bill Gates pointed out) that would give companies like Yahoo! guidance on what business practices were acceptable in countries outside the U.S. (so that, presumably, it would have some cover in negotiations with the Chinese government over its practices in China).
It’s clear from the legalistic language that Yahoo!’s public representatives use that the company is in a real bind: if they withhold information from the Chinese government, they are likely to lose the ability to do business in China and inflict major damage on their business. People in China are better off overall if companies like Yahoo! are investing there; they get jobs, investment in other supporting local businesses, and a lot of knowledge transfer from American experts (every Chinese citizen I’ve talked to believes that U.S. companies should stay in China, though of course the people I’ve talked with have been mostly the beneficiaries of investment). But that benefit doesn’t excuse any actions that contribute to putting political prisoners in jail; that goes beyond being a business decision. Yahoo! can’t change its public position without consequences from the arbitrary Chinese government, but groups like Reporters Without Borders will continue to effectively publicize the consequences of Yahoo!’s compliance with Chinese law. For the people who have to make these difficult decisions, it is surely a no-win situation.
I believe that there should immediately be some quiet modification of the way that U.S. companies gather personal information on their Chinese sites (that is, gather as little as possible and keep almost nothing), without waiting for U.S. laws to be passed (from what I can tell, there will be bills introduced that U.S. companies will have to follow like the FCPA, most likely next year). Despite all the equivocating, the enabling of Chinese repression can’t continue and will change, if without publicity (companies and governments don’t like to make difficult decisions publicly unless they have to). But with no company willing to be a leader on the issue, improvement will be hard to come by and will take longer and will be more complex than anyone will be happy with.
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