Yahoo aided the Chinese government in the arrest of a journalist, then its general counsel deliberately or negligently mislead the US Congress about the company's role during a 2006 testimony, a senior lawmaker charged on Tuesday.
Representative Tom Lantos, a California Democrat and chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, also lectured Yahoo and general counsel Michael Callahan for failing to notify the committee when the company discovered his February 2006 testimony about Yahoo's role in the arrest of journalist Shi Tao. And he questioned why a company with Yahoo's resources has not come to the aid of Shi's family.
Yahoo has had no direct contact with Shi's family, but it has been working to get him released from a ten-year prison sentence, Yahoo co-founder and CEO Jerry Yang told the committee.
But Lantos, one of several lawmakers who criticized Yahoo at Tuesday's hearing, suggested that wasn't good enough. "Why is it such a complicated issue to help a family whose breadwinner is in prison because of Yahoo's cooperation?" he said.
Yahoo "could do better" to help the family, Yang answered.
"You couldn't do less," Lantos shot back.
Callahan, in February 2006, testified that he did not know the nature of the investigation when Chinese authorities demanded Yahoo China turn over the IP (Internet Protocol) address for a person who turned out to be Shi. Callahan later learned that several employees of Yahoo China knew at the time that the demand for the information was part of an investigation involving "state secrets."
Shi, arrested in November 2004, had used his email account to forward information about a Chinese government ban on reporting about the Tiananmen Square crackdown on the 15th anniversary of the protests. He is serving a ten-year prison sentence.
Callahan and Yang testified Tuesday that Callahan's earlier testimony resulted from a misunderstanding inside of Yahoo regarding the nature of the Chinese investigation. Both apologized for Yahoo's cooperation with the Chinese investigation and for providing misleading information to Congress. Jailing dissidents "runs counter to all my personal and professional beliefs," Yang said.
It was not Yahoo's intent to mislead Congress, Callahan added.
But Lantos dismissed their explanation, saying state secrets investigations in China are commonly recognized as frequently targeting dissidents. "This was no misunderstanding," he said. "This was inexcusably negligent behavior at best and deliberately deceptive behavior at worst."
Callahan was one of several representatives of US internet companies who testified before the committee in February 2006 during a hearing on whether the companies were aiding repressive regimes.
Callahan on Tuesday acknowledged that some Yahoo China employees knew the Chinese demand involved a state secrets investigation. But the definition of state secrets in China is broad and doesn't necessarily involve dissidents, he said. Yahoo did not know until later that Chinese authorities were going after a dissident journalist, he said.
"As I understand it, the law is vague and broad, and it covers areas such as military information, economic information and science and technology," he said.
When Callahan repeated in his Tuesday testimony that Yahoo employees in China were bound to comply with "lawful orders" or face jail themselves, Lantos challenged his wording. "Why do you insist on using the phrase, 'lawful orders?'" he said. "These are the demands of a police state."
Yang said the actions of Congress leave companies like Yahoo in a difficult position. Congress in the 1990s normalized trade relations with China and encouraged US companies to do business there as a way to open up the closed government.
"We continue to believe that engagement with China is the better course and that disengagement would not further the goal of a more open and informed society in China," Callahan added.
Yahoo is taking several steps to prevent similar things from happening again, Yang said. It is working with other internet companies to create an industry code of conduct for operating in foreign countries with laws that run counter to US values, he said.
Several lawmakers suggested they wouldn't trust an industry-led code of conduct.
Lantos opened the hearing by introducing Shi's mother, who sat behind Yang while he testified. Yang turned and bowed to her as Lantos introduced her.
Representative Brad Sherman, a California Democrat, called on Yahoo to establish a large fund to help Chinese dissidents. "Anything else is an insincere bow," he said.
While Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, called Yahoo's cooperation with China "repugnant," Representative Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat, said Congress should look at its own actions in supporting repressive regimes.
Congress pours hundreds of millions of dollars in aid into Pakistan, which this week is cracking down on protesters, Wexler noted. The US government has close ties with Saudi Arabia, and it has encouraged US companies to do business in China, he added.
"There's a level of complicity, yes with Yahoo, but also with this government," he said. "I would respectfully suggest that if we delve into these issues ... let's talk about the role of the United States government and whether we legitimately do or do not inhibit freedom or democracy."