Do you, uh, Yahoo? You’re busted!

Do you, uh, Yahoo? Not, one would hope, if you’re a Chinese dissident or journalist on the wrong side of the authorities.

It seems that American technology companies can’t stay out of trouble in China. The last two days has seen widespread coverage of Yahoo!’s alleged implication in the arrest of a Chinese journalist wanted for “releasing state secrets”, which is a euphemism for embarrassing the government, among other things. The BBC has one of the more interesting articles, because it covers the bigger picture without dwelling on the usual shopping list of scare figures, like the 40,000 lurking net monitors (cited in the Telegraph’s coverage – does anyone else notice that number inflating?):

Yaman Akdeniz is the director of cyber-rights.net, a web-based e-mail service set up in the wake of tighter laws in the UK about the traceability of e-mail communications.

He advises activists using the web in oppressive regimes around the world to make sure they did not set up accounts with firms which have offices in the country in question.

“Providers with offices in China have to obey specific rules. We operate in the UK so I don’t have to reply to any requests for information made by the Chinese government,” he said.

While cyber-rights.net collects no information about its users it is not a completely untraceable way of sending communications.

If asked by the UK government to supply information in a fraud or terrorist investigation it is likely its parent company Hushmail would comply, even though it is based in Canada and not bound by UK law, said Mr Akdeniz.

“But if the request was for information about the account of a journalist it is likely it would be more reluctant to comply,” he said.

I don’t know if Yahoo! is guilty or not, but, as a PR pro, and in the wake of recent scandals concerning the conduct of fellow tech firms Cisco, Google and Microsoft in China, something is clear: there should be a whole category of crisis public relations for tech firms named as complicit in Chinese government censorship or detainments.

It doesn’t make much difference to those firms’ business in China, of course. For one thing, not many people are likely to hear about it here. But I wonder if it will start impacting technology firms internationally. I think back to noisy, well-organized public campaigns against companies doing business in apartheid-era South Africa, or in Myanmar. So far, the calls against tech firms complicit in censorship (and now arrests) in China have been pretty scattered, and confined primarily to the digerati rather than to the great mass of customers. That might change.

So far, most of the firms confronted have given variations on the “we comply with the laws of our host country” explanation. This is accurate and understandable, but as a PR holding statement it doesn’t do much to diffuse the perception that western tech firms are knuckling under to a repressive government in search of massive bucks. Just the thing to put college students in a righteous snit. Yahoo! hasn’t issued a statement on this situation that I can find, which is also not a great idea because NGOs like Human Rights Wach and Reporters Without Borders are busy filling the silence.

I can see the dilemma for big, listed Internet companies. Their shareholders will punish them ruthlessly if they aren’t aggressively pursuing the Chinese market. But to do business in China, they have to submit to the Chinese government, in all it’s capriciousness. These are really media companies – the only foreign media companies allowed to do business here – with real influence over Chinese people and a commensurate level of scrutiny from the authorities. But none of them will dare foresake the market on principles, and that leaves them vulnerable to PR problems whether petty, as in the case of Microsoft’s banning of general words from it’s MSN China Spaces blogging site, or sinister, as in Yahoo!’s possible complicity in an arrest. It doesn’t seem that many of them have thought in advance about how to deal with these problems.

Sooner or later, these companies are going to have to come up with a better explanation than “just following the law of the land”, or they will end up on the wrong side of a really aggressive, negative PR campaign that will hurt a lot. For the life of me, I can’t think of what that explanation might be; give me some time to work on it. But public statements of principle on matters of free speech and protection of the rights of journalists might be a good start. These are media companies, after all. Manufacturing companies have been down this road with China sweatshops and sketchy contract manufacturers. They’ve had to submit to independent monitoring and create codes of conduct for their contractors. And they’ve been held to account, although not often enough. Could a similar situation arise for the media companies doing business here?

In the meantime, there is some good advice in the BBC article above. If you’re a Chinese journalist or dissident, perhaps you shouldn’t host your e-mail with a company doing business in China. Perhaps the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group for online privacy and anonymity, would care to make some of its very good privacy information available in Chinese.

Of course, it would probably be blocked…

Update, Sept 9: And sure enough, Yahoo!’s defence is just as predicted above. From Reuters, via the Australian:

“Just like any other global company, Yahoo! must ensure that its local country sites must operate within the laws, regulations and customs of the country in which they are based,” Yahoo spokeswoman Mary Osako said in a statement emailed to Reuters by the company’s Hong Kong arm.

This is meeting the predicable response from Reporters Without Borders, who ask:

“Does the fact that this corporation operates under Chinese law free it from all ethical considerations? How far will it go to please Beijing?” it asked.

“It is one thing to turn a blind eye to the Chinese Government’s abuses and it is quite another thing to collaborate.”

People who read this site know my opinions on the Chinese government’s treatment of journalists and the media. But looking at this strictly from a PR point of view, I think Yahoo! and the other firms will find their “just following the law of the land” defence progressively less tenable. That is because the NGOs and activists targeting them are attacking the morality of the laws that these companies are claiming to comply with. Go back to the apartheid comparison, above. If a company had cited compliance with the law of South Africa in submitting to apartheid, how do you think activists of the era would have responded?

The explanation still needs to evolve. Expect more trouble ahead.

Update 2: Other interesting links (both via Peking Duck)
Angry Chinese Blogger translates the document that got Shi Tao busted. (Proxy link.)
ESWN dissents on condemnation of Yahoo, although I suspect he will be a voice in the wilderness.

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