Fast Company

At What Price Freedom?

It's already been reported that companies such as Microsoft and Google censor content of Internet users in China at the behest of the government there. Now comes a story of how Yahoo -- which also allows its content to be censored -- gave information about one of its users, a journalist, to the Chinese government that was used to convict him, according to news reports and court documents.

Shi Tao, 37, who works for Contemporary Business News, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for posting to Democracy Forum, a Chinese language Web site based in New York, a government document warning about potential activism on the 15th anniversary of the Tiannamen Square massacre. Here's the Reporters Without Borders take.

"Just like any other global company," read a statement in a New York Times article, "Yahoo must ensure that its local country sites must operate within the laws, regulations and customs of the country in which they are based." Especially when you've just purchased a 40 percent stake for $1 billion in the Chinese e-commerce site Alibaba.com. I wonder how this all fits in with Yahoo's self-proclaimed values.

To think that Yahoo, which was founded in a country that espouses freedom of the press, and whose stock and trade is the free flow of information, would give in to a repressive government, is disturbing, to say the least. There's a higher moral imperative here that companies should demand of themselves, and, that users should demand, too. I leave you with this little nugget from Yahoo's Guide to Business Conduct and Ethics: "If you wouldn't want your action to appear in the media, it's probably not the right thing to do." Well, Yahoo, it's in the media.

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11 Comments

  • Paul

    You can't but freedom. However, someone can buy your absense of freedom.

    Media attacks Yahoo for someone's ping. Business is business.

  • elise

    Question to Yahoo: "Can you look your child in the eye and tell them what you've done, what you support"? Shi Tao can, with dignity and pride.

    Unfortunately we don't live in a world that honors Shi Tao - to your shame, you will benefit from this abuse. (At the end of the quarter when you tally your bottom line, tell us what you've gained and we'll tell you what you've lost).

    We were once looked upon as a great nation; unfortunately in the eyes of the world this is no longer true. Your actions contribute to this shame.

    To all of us who are kinder and stronger than Corporate America I say "don't do business with Yahoo". Yahoo only has the power your support gives them - without us, their bottom line is zero.

  • mahendra kumar dash

    It has to be understood clearly that both the companies have gone for pure business and one
    can not do business in China or any other country
    unless it complies thier rules and regulations.
    Another aspect is international pressure and a
    common consensus arrived by countries in different
    forums.If China has to survive in Global market,it has to confirm to global requirement.
    The matter be taken up at the international level and international pressure be built up to inform
    governments that do not know freedom and if freedom then at what cost ?And in todays world,please recollect the students and Tiannaman
    square episode.Could the world prevent it.But now it can.One day it will happen.Mya it be the Chinese policy,may it be Microsoft or Google or any firm they have got to confirm to global standards that ensures freedom,if not today then shortly.

  • M. Russell Stewart

    Dear Mr. Roger Fulton:

    It seems you are quite emotionally-charged in most of your posts - many times, as today, to the point of derogation. At first, I thought you were just another Angry (insert race) Male, but now I usually find your posts quite insightful once I get past the near-seething tone.

    While this may not be the case, I believe you would be impressed by the book "Crucial Conversations" by Kerry Patterson, et al. It has helped me in all my communications.

    Regards,

    MAS

  • Stephen Higgins

    We who are free can exercise our freedoms by speaking, acting and responding. I have met many and know of 1000’s who are or have been imprisoned in China for just wanting to be in church. Others who have died in the prison camps that build our cheap priced things we like. Do these things line the path towards an open culture that honors the value of everyone not just the powerful and rich? Time will tell all truth – failures and successes. This I do know that the reporter that has been jailed for the truth he posted knew the risk from the Chinese government – but he may not have counted on Yahoo collaboration – like the Viceé-french with Nazi Germany. The real question is which would you be Yahoo or Shi Tao – collaborator or willing to pay the price and speak against. Yahoo had a great opportunity to say no and why to the whole world and their integrity would have shined. But because Yahoo freely choose another much easier road - will know I don’t agree by my not doing business through them anymore because I am free to do so. Stephen

  • Bruce

    What price freedom?

    As far as I can tell it always has come at a significant cost. I am blessed to have been born in a free country that exists because those that came before me chose to fight for that freedom and pay the price, many their very lives, so that this could be my reality today. I am greatful for their sacrifice on my behalf.

    Whether you believe in their (China's, Yahoo's) respective idealogy/beliefs/values including their position on fundamental truth like liberty on some level is besides the point in my opinion.

    As for China and Yahoo. China is a country. Yahoo is a business. With the exception of the use of the word "integrity" under the heading of Excellence within Yahoo's "Values", I see no indication that it is their primary mission in life to lead the world morally. China's position on this matter is self evident. I am not looking for or expecting either one to be my moral compass.

    As for Shi Tao however, it would appear that liberty is very important to him. So much so that in spite of the risks he chose to speak out. While his imprisonment is unfortunate, he joins the long list of people that have paid a significant personal price for something they believed in. I admire his courage, am thankful for his example, and will pray for him.

    As for the rest of us... Like Shi Tao we have all been given free will. We all can choose to respond to Yahoo's apparent role in his plight in the manner we feel led.

    I find it interesting that had it not been for the internet, Shi Tao's decision, China's response, even Yahoo's involvement, and ultimately this blog... I wouldn't know anything about Shi Tao.

    It may take a while but the truth will ultimately set us all free. What an incredible gift freedom (free will) is. For starters I chose to take time out and respond to your comments.

    A somewhat pathetic contribution in light of Shi Tao's. The world is a better place because of risk takers like him.

  • roger fulton

    I don't believe you guys; I'll bet you believe in the Easter Bunny. Gee, somebody sold out to gain a foothold in the vast, China marketplace. I wonder what prompted $uch a deci$ion??

  • Jeremy D.

    I have to agree with Joe. Engagement within a country that does not espouse American ideals of freedom can be very dirty business. Yahoo's compliance in this matter assured that they could continue their presence in China.

    Look at Russia (and Eastern Europe as a whole). Engagement was very distasteful to many people, "How could American companies do business in Communist Russia with all of its human rights violations, closed political processes and the lack of what we have come to take for granted as basic human freedoms?" The answer is not pull out and wait for Russia or in this case China to spontaneously erupt into a democratic country.

    I truly believe that without Western businesses entering those markets 1989 may have unfolded differently. Did the ability to buy a Coke in Moscow bring about Perestroika? No. But it did drive another nail or two in the coffin of Communism.

  • Joe

    Yahoo and other companies are between a rock and a hard place when operating in China. They have two choices. They can follow the laws of the Chinese government, or they can forego doing business in China.

    While I don't like a reporter being jailed like this, I don't believe the way to encourage reform in China is to isolate the country from doing business with the rest of world.

    As much openness available is the right path. There will be times like this where openness backfires, but the general direction is forward.

    Like it or not, Yahoo didn't have much of a choice.