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Yahoo Lied About China, Legislators Say

Yahoo chief executive Jerry Yang testifies at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing as Gao Qinsheng, mother of imprisoned an Chinese dissident Shi Tao, listens behind him. Yang faced her and bowed in apology during the hearing.
Yahoo chief executive Jerry Yang testifies at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing as Gao Qinsheng, mother of imprisoned an Chinese dissident Shi Tao, listens behind him. Yang faced her and bowed in apology during the hearing. (By Alex Wong -- Getty Images)

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By Catherine Rampell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Members of Congress yesterday accused Yahoo of lying about its cooperation with the Chinese government in an incident that resulted in the imprisonment of a dissident.

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At a hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, lawmakers said one of the Internet company's executives testified falsely last year about how much Yahoo knew about China's 2004 investigation into Shi Tao, a reporter and editor at Contemporary Business News in China who used Yahoo.

The Yahoo executive said then that the company "had no information about the nature of the investigation" when it received a demand for Shi's e-mail records from China's State Security Ministry. In fact, the demand specifically said the information was for "a case of suspected illegal provision of state secrets," a charge frequently made against dissidents. When Yahoo executives took note of the language, they did not alert U.S. lawmakers to correct the record.

"While technologically and financially you are giants, morally you are pygmies," Committee Chairman Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) told chief executive Jerry Yang and general counsel Michael J. Callahan, the executive who testified on Yahoo's role last year.

Callahan attributed misinformation he supplied to a misunderstanding. "At the time of my testimony in 2006, it was my understanding that the Shi Tao demand contained no information regarding the specific details of the investigation," Callahan said in a prepared statement. "I now know that the demand did contain additional information."

Lawmakers insisted that the company discipline the people responsible for briefing Callahan and that Yahoo provide assistance to Shi's family. Yahoo said no one who helped prepare the original testimony had been fired.

Shi's mother, Gao Qinsheng, was sitting directly behind Yang at yesterday's hearing. When Lantos urged Yang to apologize, Yang swiveled his chair toward her, and, with a flushed face, bowed slightly. He later apologized to Gao but would not commit to compensating her for her son's imprisonment.

Gao and the family of Wang Xiaoning, an author and editor of pro-democracy publications who was imprisoned after Yahoo allegedly identified him to Chinese authorities, are suing the company. Wang's wife was also at the hearing.

"Because Yahoo did this, they almost killed my son," Gao said in a recent interview.

Other companies have addressed the issue of complying with the demands of censoring states in different ways. Google, for example, says that it does not offer e-mail services in China so that it cannot be forced to turn over sensitive information.

Some legislators hope to take these choices out of corporate hands. The Global Online Freedom Act, introduced by Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), would prohibit U.S. Internet companies from disclosing information about their users to foreign governments without the Justice Department's permission. The Foreign Affairs Committee approved that bill two weeks ago, and it is awaiting consideration by the Commerce Committee.


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