After Being Slammed by Congress, Yahoo Settles

Dennis Faas's picture

In North America, we certainly take for granted our freedom of speech. Although some libertarians argue that the battle to freely speak one's mind is still being waged, the situation here is clearly nothing like the restrictions of communist China, where the government and multimedia are still fighting for control of the public.

The problem for many in the United States is not necessarily the policy of the Chinese government -- that's tough to change -- but the ethical standards of American companies operating in the country. Finally, there's a sign that the web's most powerful companies will be held accountable when they play by undemocratic rules.

At the heart of China's freedom of speech controversy, surprisingly enough, lay Yahoo, a prominent U.S. web company. In 2004, Yahoo turned over two Chinese journalists to the communist regime; their crime? Not hacking, not phishing, not even illegal music downloading, but instead shared roles as democratic activists. The information provided by Yahoo, considered by many to be the web's number two search engine and an overall media giant, resulted in the conviction of the two journalists. Each received punishments of ten years in prison.

Fighting back are the journalists' families, who allege that Yahoo violated U.S. and international law when they provided the Chinese authorities with personal information leading to an arrest. Last week, the United States Congress jumped on board, bashing Yahoo for its totalitarian actions. In a statement, Democrat Tom Lantos told the media, that Yahoo deserved its tongue-lashing and finally "did the right thing and coughed up some concrete assistance for the family of a journalist who Yahoo had helped send to jail. What a disgrace." (Source:

A big non-decision

Lantos is referring to the out-of-court settlement finally reached between the journalists' families and Yahoo. The company's decision ends a civil lawsuit against the Sunnyvale, California company, and almost surely means some significant compensation for the imprisoned and their loved ones. (Source:

After the decision to settle, Yahoo told the media, "After meeting with the families, it was clear to [us] what we had to do to make this right for them, for Yahoo, and for the future."

On their future role on the web, the company said, "We believe in the transformative power of the Internet. That's why we are so committed to working to support free expression and privacy around the world."

Whether they like it or not, there's now a precedent -- as weak as it may be -- to hold companies like Yahoo (or Google, or Microsoft) to their democratic heritage.

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