An ugly chapter in internet giant Yahoo!'s history was revisited this week with the introduction of new legislation that would prevent a repeat botch-up the company made that landed Chinese journalists in prison.
The bill would prevent companies like Yahoo!, Google, and Microsoft from helping such governments find, convict and torture citizens for engaging in democracy promotion and human rights advocacy on the internet.
"U.S. businesses should have no role in aiding and abetting oppression around the world," said Rep. Christopher Smith, (R-NJ), a long time human rights activist in Congress, who authored the New Global Online Freedom Act (GOFA).
Smith's words are weighted with memories of journalists jailed in China with the aid of Yahoo!. The company settled a lawsuit from two Chinese journalists in 2007 who went to jail after the company turned over details of their online activities to Chinese authorities.
The settlement came one week after a Congressional hearing scrutinized Yahoo!'s role in the jailing of former financial writer Shi Tao, who was jailed for providing state secrets to foreigners. His conviction stemmed from an e-mail he sent containing his notes on a government circular that spelled out restrictions on the media.
In May 2007, Shi Tao joined journalist Wang Xiaoning in suing Yahoo! and its subsidiaries, accusing the company of "aiding and abetting" their imprisonment - and their torture. Both journalists were serving ten year sentences in prison for using the web to promote democracy, and both were sentenced after Yahoo! disclosed their other online data to the Chinese government.
"After meeting with the families, it was clear to me what we had to do to make this right for them, for Yahoo!, and for the future," former Yahoo! CEO Jerry Yang said at the time.
Smith said this week that it is "unconscionable that American businesses, founded in the world's leading democracy, would even consider enabling repressive governments that seek to stifle basic freedoms."
The bill would require U.S. IT companies doing business in repressive countries to keep records on and notify the U.S. Attorney General of demands for personal information about Internet users.
The legislation also gives the Attorney General the authority to order IT companies not to comply if there is a reasonable likelihood that the demand is made for tracking down political or religious dissidents.
Chinese criminal courts identified Yahoo! as having handed over information requested by the Chinese government which resulted in prison sentences for four Chinese "cyber-dissidents".
Morton Sklar, lead counsel for the dissidents said he believes there are many more whose names did not show up in the court documents.
"We estimate there were hundreds if not thousands of internet users who were similarly affected by Yahoo! disclosures," said Sklar, who is also the Executive Director Emeritus of the World Organization for Human Rights USA.
In November 2007 hearings, Congressional leaders asked Yahoo! to identify all the names of those that they had disclosed that resulted in arrests and also asked Yahoo! to indicate whether the disclosure policy was still being followed and Yahoo! never responded to those requests though they said they would, according to Sklar.