The CEO of Yahoo got a much-deserved tongue-lashing by Congressional Democrats yesterday, for his company’s complicity in the jailing of Chinese dissidents. It’s at once fascinating and sickening to see a phalanx of corporate hacks and their attorneys, mumbling coached statements about their obligation to obey the law in a totalitarian state, and their ignorance about what would be done with information they provided, and their sorrow — without admitting guilt, mind you — about what may or may not be happening. “I want to personally apologize for what they are going through,” said CEO Yang, which has the ring of personal responsibility, but neatly leaves out any words that actually suggest culpability. It’s the classic Washington, D.C. apology, the kind of thing that none of us accept from our children, but which gets modeled for them nonetheless by our nation’s corporate and political leadership.
It’s a tough bind, to be sure, looking at a juicy multi-billion dollar Chinese market, and being told that your bite at the apple only comes by helping the ruling regime catch and imprison citizens brave enough to speak out against it. I’ve never had the chance to walk away from that kind of money, so I can’t be sure my legs would work so well either. Fortunately, however, the moral standard is higher than my example, and certainly higher than Yahoo’s example, and while Congressman Tom Lantos probably has his flaws as well, I couldn’t help but cheer when he called Yahoo’s executives “moral pygmies.”
That captures it so nicely, the smallness necessary to sell human beings, which is what Yahoo did, and then to feign ignorance, and only now, with the heat fully on, to halfway admit something like responsibility, all while refusing any sort of financial relief to the wives of the men they helped imprison. And Yahoo, it seems, is only the tip of the iceberg of corporate complicity in Chinese imprisonment and torture, as Peter Navarro notes in today’s Los Angeles Times. While the host of technology companies that Navarro indicts, as well as their technophile apologists, like to argue that doing business in China actually strengthens the infrastructure necessary for eventual freedom, Navarro says the opposite is true:
“The collaborative tools that U.S. corporations provide to spy on, and silence, the Chinese people are far more likely to help prop up a totalitarian regime than topple it.”
Wall Street analysts, meanwhile, are wagering that with yesterday’s blistering hearings, the worst of this “episode,” as such profound moral lapses are labeled in our nation’s financial and political capitals, is behind Yahoo. I hope not. While some members of Congress are sponsoring a bill that would make it illegal for U.S. technology companies to assist in the abuses that Yahoo and others willingly abet, we can be almost certain the final form will do more harm than good, so subject as such laws are to partisan manipulation and pocket-lining. At a more personal level, we can all do a few things on our own, however. For one, if you are using Yahoo for your email provider, stop. There are plenty of other free email providers. For another, set up a filter in your email to block anyone with a Yahoo address from emailing you, along with an auto-response that explains why they are being blocked. Annoying, yes, but imagine the network effects if a thousand people took the time to do this, influencing others to do so, who influenced others, and so on. It’s not inconceivable that a “tipping point” could be reached, at which the majority of Yahoo users switch providers because their emails are getting blocked. I’ll bet that would wipe the smiles off some faces mighty quick.