Yahoo Establishes Human Rights Fund in China

Published June 1, 2008

Following an international outcry over its role in assisting Chinese authorities in identifying dissidents online, Internet services firm Yahoo, Inc. has sought to repair its tarnished image by establishing a human rights fund to assist those persecuted or jailed by Chinese censors.

Yahoo founder and CEO Jerry Yang has also spoken out about the challenges of operating in countries run by repressive regimes.

Yahoo’s human rights fund was formally established in January, just months after executives of the Internet company stood before U.S. lawmakers, accused of providing false information to Congress earlier about the circumstances surrounding its role in complying with the Chinese government.

During the congressional hearing in November 2007, former congressman Tom Lantos (D-CA), then head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, blasted Yahoo executives, including Yang, saying, “Technologically and financially you are giants; morally you are pygmies.”

Choice, Consequences

In separate incidents in 2002 and 2004 the Chinese government asked Yahoo to disclose the account information of Internet users who had posted online communications deemed anti-government. With Yahoo’s help, the authorities uncovered the users’ identities. As a result, Chinese journalist Shi Tao and pro-democracy writer Wang Xiaoning are now serving 10-year prison sentences.

A lawsuit filed against Yahoo on the men’s behalf by the World Organization for Human Rights (WOHR) USA caught the attention of Congress and set off a maelstrom of criticism.

Human Rights Fund

While the lawsuit was in process, WOHR suggested Yahoo create a fund to provide humanitarian and legal assistance to censorship victims, said Theresa Harris, a Washington, DC-based international justice project director with the organization.

Harris said the safeguarding of human rights is a sound business practice and does not conflict with profit maximization. After all, she said, customers place a premium on trustworthiness.

“Businesses need to take into account the human rights impact,” Harris said. “Profits do depend on having a human rights framework, particularly on privacy and free speech.”

Reputation Repairs

Yahoo’s ensuing public relations disaster required a fix, and the fund was one path to redemption, but with a little foresight and planning the flap could have been avoided, experts say.

“Corporations give to charity for self-interest. They’re trying to repair a brand name with a goodwill gesture,” said economics and public policy professor Peter Navarro of the University of California, Irvine.

“It’s a step [Yahoo] wouldn’t have to take if they had been more strategic. They need to think preemptively about which lines they don’t want to cross, and have those strategies in place,” Navarro said.

For example, Yahoo could have alerted the press when confronted by the Chinese government’s demands, Navarro said, using the subsequent backlash in the international community to pressure the Chinese to back off.

Alternatively, Navarro suggested, high-tech giants could take a “united we stand” approach and “act collaboratively on core issues in Chinese policies that push these companies into gray areas they don’t want to go.”

Rita Chang ([email protected]) was a journalist in Hong Kong and now writes from San Francisco, California.