Like all U.S. technology companies that do business in China, Yahoo faces tough choices. It can comply with repressive local regulations, or it can bow out of the lucrative market altogether. Complying with those regulations, critics charge, leads to restricting free speech, suppressing dissent and even to the harassment and detention of those who work to advance basic human rights. For several reasons, however, we believe that compliance is the better choice for U.S. companies. That was the decision Yahoo reached as well, but, like Microsoft, Google and Cisco, it has faced a barrage of criticism for doing so. Yahoo now also faces a civil lawsuit, the first of its kind, that seeks to hold the company liable for its compliance with Chinese regulations.
The suit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in California on behalf of Wang Xiaoning, a pro-democracy activist currently serving a prison term in China, and Yu Ling, his wife, alleges that Yahoo turned over information to Chinese officials that was used to arbitrarily arrest, detain and torture Mr. Wang. The jailed activist edited two journals between 2000 and 2002 that advocated political reform and championed multi-party democracy in China. Chinese officials tried to block the electronic distribution of the journals and his other political writing in 2001, but Mr. Wang continued, circulating his work by e-mailing anonymously. In 2002, he was detained by police, his apartment raided and his computers seized. He was charged a month later, according to the complaint, imprisoned and beaten.
Yahoo asserts — and the suit does not dispute — that companies in China must comply with Chinese law. Additionally, “Yahoo China will not know whether the demand for information is for a legitimate criminal investigation or is going to be used to prosecute political dissidents,” according to a Yahoo spokesman.
On the whole, Internet companies like Yahoo and Google increase access to information in China. The Chinese government has dedicated substantial effort to Internet censorship, but that should ultimately be a losing battle. A censored but independent search engine is, after all, better than one that is government-run, or none at all.
The companies also hold the weaker hand. The potential of the Chinese market is sufficiently strong that if Yahoo took the moral stand its critics have called for, a more tractable competitor would happily move to take Yahoo’s place.
The case of Mr. Wang — like the cases of the numerous other “dissidents” jailed for their political views — is thoroughly abhorrent and should draw the harshest condemnation. But responsibility for it lies with the China’s ruling Communist Party and its authoritarian policies, not with Yahoo. What responsibility America has to pressure China on human-rights law lies with the State Department, not with individual companies.