Callahan: Yahoo Wasn't Cooperating with China to Target Dissidents

You know the odds are stacked against you defending your case that you didn't provide false testimony to Congress when the hearing you're invited to attend is entitled, "Yahoo Inc.'s Provision of False Information to Congress." Though official transcripts or video have yet to be made public, based on written testimony entered into the record, it's clear that House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos (D - Calif.) turned the heat up to high in grilling Yahoo's chief attorney Michael Callahan and his boss, CEO Jerry Yang, for what Lantos described as conduct before Congress that warranted an apology to the nation.

"If you think our witnesses today are uncomfortable sitting in this climate-controlled room and accounting for their company's spineless and irresponsible actions," reads Rep. Lantos' prepared opening remarks for this morning, "imagine how life is for Shi Tao, spending ten long years in a Chinese dungeon for exchanging information publicly - exactly what Yahoo claims to support in places like China."

Shi Tao is a Chinese journalist whose personal information was turned over to Chinese government authorities by Yahoo China, his ISP. That information was used in trial to convict Tao on charges of divulging state secrets. In a February 2006 House subcommittee hearing, Callahan testified that Yahoo had no knowledge of the Tao case at the time it was made aware of it by news reports.

"Yahoo claims that this is just one big misunderstanding, that Yahoo's false testimony was really just a matter of an internal miscommunication," reads Lantos' remarks. "Let me be clear: This was no misunderstanding. This was inexcusably negligent behavior at best, and deliberately deceptive behavior at worst...In preparing for testimony before this Committee, Yahoo did not see fit to hire a translator to make sure the document upon which it relied for its entire defense was translated properly. Mr. Callahan never asked to see the document."

The reason that may have happened is because of the document's classification as "state secrets" under Chinese law, Yahoo contends. In his own prepared remarks for this morning - some of which mirrored his public apology last week - Callahan planned to say that Yahoo was not intentionally cooperating with China in its search for dissidents, but rather simply turning over data to its government for its own secretive reasons.

"At the time of the hearing, there were press reports and public concern suggesting that Yahoo China was cooperating knowingly and voluntarily with the Chinese government to target dissidents," reads Callahan's prepared remarks. "These were very serious - and very inaccurate - allegations. In my testimony, I tried to make clear that, when Yahoo China responded to the lawful demand for information concerning the user we later learned from the press reports to be Shi Tao, it did not know the identity of the user, that the person targeted was a reporter, or that the case involved political activism. This was my point in making the statements in my prior testimony, and the point is unchanged by the additional information I now know. I also emphasized my understanding that failure by the Yahoo China operation in Beijing to comply with lawful orders from government authorities may have subjected the Chinese employees of that company to civil and criminal penalties, including imprisonment."

As Callahan was prepared to go on to say, in October 2006, the Shi Tao case became the subject of an investigation by the Hong Kong Privacy Commissioner. It was there, he said, where he learned not only that the data turned over to the Chinese government contained a "state secrets" classification, but also what "state secrets" actually meant.

"Although I did not understand the reference to 'state secrets' revealed that the investigation was for pro-democracy activities," Callahan planned to say, "nonetheless, I recognized in October 2006 that it was additional information about the Shi Tao case. Once I became aware of this additional information about the Shi Tao case, Yahoo made no effort to conceal it. Indeed, shortly thereafter - over one year ago - Yahoo Inc. filed a sworn statement with the Hong Kong Privacy Commissioner under my signature that included a direct reference to the fact that this 'state secrets' language appeared in the demand made upon Yahoo China by the government."

What Callahan did not do, though, was contact Congress.

"Given what I now know about the misunderstanding and concern created, I deeply regret that I did not think to contact you," Callahan planned to say, "and I have apologized for that oversight to you, Mr. Chairman through the Committee's staff, and I have reiterated it publicly here today. But, in my view, this is not, Mr. Chairman, the provision of false information to Congress."

Though CEO Yang presumably sat next to Callahan this morning, if he stuck to his script, he might have actually let Callahan bake a little bit under Rep. Lantos' bright lamp. Yang's prepared opening statement actually omits any reference to Callahan by name, as well as any mention of the February 2006 hearing. Indeed, at one point, it digresses into a biographical tale, which included his immigration from Taiwan and his studies at Stanford.

Speaking with pride about his company but referring to no one by name except himself and co-founder David Filo, Yang planned to say, "We're all focused on protecting and promoting free expression and privacy in the online world. This diverse group has made a public commitment to creating a set of global principles and operating procedures on freedom of expression and privacy to guide company behavior when faced with laws, regulations, and policies that interfere with human rights. The group's goals also include creating an implementation, accountability and governance framework - real teeth - as well as a forum for sharing ideas. The companies are driving to complete this human rights code of conduct in early 2008."

"Real teeth" may have been exactly what Rep. Lantos showed in his own remarks.

"I do not believe that America's best and brightest companies should be playing integral roles in China's notorious and brutal political repression apparatus," Lantos planned to say. "I will ask our witnesses today, in light of these embarrassing and appalling facts, whether Yahoo is now prepared to endorse legislation authored by congressman Chris Smith and approved by this Committee to ensure that American complicity with high-tech repression ends. It should be self-evident that companies cannot get away with providing false information to Congress. So today, I call on Yahoo's top corporate executives to apologize to this Committee, the Congress of the United States, and the American people."


Update ribbon (small)

3:10 pm EST November 6, 2007 - Later this afternoon, the Wall Street Journal reported that, at the urging of Chairman Lantos, Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang did stray off-script, if briefly, to personally apologize to the family of Shi Tao. His mother was seated directly behind Yang and Michael Callahan.

"I want to take a moment," the WSJ quotes Yang as saying, "to recognize the families of the dissidents sitting behind me. I want to say we are committed to doing what we can to secure their freedom. And I want to personally apologize for what they are going through."

Though Yahoo has stated it has been working with China and other world governments in the drafting of human rights policies for Internet users, this may be the first we've heard about Yahoo actually dealing with the Chinese government to secure Shi Tao's release.

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