Cheat-Seeking Missles

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Can The Internet Corner China's Thugocrats?

Human rights groups suffer greatly from "little boy who cried wolf" disease. They have made so many mountains out of so many molehills that they have tortured their credibility far worse than their targets torture citizens.

But when the target of one of these groups is China and they attack it through a lawsuit against a major internet company that has grovelled before the Communists to gain a franchise, I just might say:

The LATimes reports:
A human-rights group filed a lawsuit Wednesday against Yahoo Inc. for allegedly providing information to the Chinese government that led to the persecution, torture and imprisonment of dissidents.

The World Organization for Human Rights USA filed the lawsuit on behalf of Wang Xiaoning, who is serving a 10-year prison sentence for advocating Democratic reform in China in articles circulated on the Internet, and his wife, Yu Ling, who watched Beijing security officials barge into their home and arrest her husband of 27 years.

The suit seeks damages for Wang, Yu and others who have been arbitrarily detained, tortured or subjected to inhumane treatment at the hands of Chinese authorities because of information Yahoo allegedly provided the government. It also seeks Yahoo's help in securing the release of these prisoners and a court order to prevent it from taking similar actions in the future.

"U.S. corporations doing business in places like China, that have highly repressive practices and commit human rights violations on a systemic basis, need to ask themselves a question: Are the actions I'm taking or the information I'm providing putting people at risk?" said Morton Sklar, executive director of the World Organization for Human Rights USA.
WOHR said it selected Yahoo out of the mini-universe of probably culpable companies (Google, Microsoft, Cisco) because the evidence against Yahoo was the most substantial. According to the LAT report, Chinese courts said Yahoo was instrumental in the arrest and conviction of Wang. The company's Hong Kong subsidiary provided police with information linking Wang to emails that included his pro-democracy political journals and other pro-Democracy comments. The communications allegedly were made via a Yahoo group, then annonymously (or so Wang thought).

Yahoo's position today is typical, and offensive.
Jim Cullinan, Yahoo's director of public affairs, said the company had not seen the lawsuit. But he said American companies doing business in China were required to comply with local law — or else their employees would face civil or criminal penalties.
Does that statement remind you of something? Nuremburg perhaps? Cullinan would have us believe Yahoo was just following orders and shouldn't be culpable. But how does he explain the apparent disconnect with Yahoo's statement of social responsibility, which is:
At Yahoo!, we believe in sharing success and treating people right. We share our success with the communities we live and work in. We treat our employees right, celebrating their diversity and encouraging them to experience the joy of volunteering. We treat our customers right by offering them the protection and privacy they need. And finally, we try to the treat the environment right, going to great lengths to ensure we leave a light footprint.
I doubt if Beijing's thugs left a light footprint on Wang's back. Meanwhile, Cullinan digs a deeper hole for his company:
Cullinan said the Chinese authorities did not disclose to Yahoo why they were seeking certain information or even the nature of the underlying criminal investigation. He said Yahoo had no way of knowing whether the demand for information was related to a legitimate criminal investigation or would be used to persecute a political dissident.
When you're doing business with totalitarian thugs, there ought to be a threshhold of recognition that their requests might not be exactly for humanitarian purposes. But, Cullinan appears to acknowledge, they asked no questions, they received no answers, and they handed over the requested information.

That is a very low standard of review.

The lawsuit puts China in the spotlight yet again as a country that wants its place on the world stage, but refuses to play by the rules. It's getting tougher and tougher for the Commies in Beijing to play this game because their people are tasting more of the outside world. They have the Internet now -- restricted and dangerous as it may be -- so it will be tough to take it away. And with the lawsuit, it should become tougher to keep it restricted.

That is, it should become tougher to keep it restricted if the world's internet providers decide to stand up for what's right.

Cullinan's suggested solution, unfortunately, is for the State Department to pressure China to change its ways. That's a fine suggestion, and I'm sure it's in an in-box somewhere at State. When it comes up, I'm just as certain the fine men of Beijing will immediately bow to the will of America. As if.

Internet companies cannot attack the U.S. for requesting carefully defined information under the Patriot Act, then hide behind Uncle Sam when they're caught virtually conspiring with Commies to snuff out Democratic opposition behind the Bamboo Curtain. The moral imperative is on them -- not that it's not on State, too -- but they are putting money ahead of freedom.

Is there a Liviu Lebrescu anywhere at Yahoo? Microsoft? Google? Cisco? Someone with honor and courage? Someone who will stand at the door between Beijing and Wang and shout, "You're going to have to get through me before you get to him!"

No, sadly, there is not.

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