Ugly Chapter in Yahoo!'s History Revisited

Yahoo! said that a reliable estimate of the number and nature of Chinese law enforcement demands is not attainable because the underlying law enforcement demands are not within Yahoo! Inc.'s control. Yahoo! transferred its mainland China operations to Alibaba.com in 2005, and owns a minority stake in that China-based company.

"While Yahoo! Inc. previously ascertained some limited information about Chinese law enforcement demands, we have been unable to verify this information without the necessary documents or information from Alibaba. Our formal and informal requests for information regarding these demands have been denied by Alibaba," the company said.

Reporters Without Borders, a non-profit first amendment advocacy group, said that China is the world's top jailer of journalists, with 30 currently in prison and another 48 "cyber-dissidents" in detention.

Some Experts Say Global Online Freedom Act is Premature

Google and Microsoft have been criticized for agreeing to censor themselves in China. They, along with Yahoo!, say they have adhered to a Global Network Initiative (GNI) code of conduct formed to "help stakeholders in the technology industry uphold the rights of freedom of expression and privacy in the face of pressures from governments to comply with laws and policies that violate these internationally recognized human rights."

Yahoo! has said that the company was founded on the principle that promoting access to information can improve lives and advance human rights around the world, and it is hosting a Business and Human Rights Summit this week at its Sunnyvale, California, headquarters.

Some experts say that the GNI should continue to conduct research before a law like GOFA should be implemented.

Colin M. Maclay is the Managing Director of Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, an organization involved with developing the GNI principles. He said he is worried that the problem of internet surveillance is an evolving global issue and that he fears Smith's bill is premature.

"What we've done with the GNI is to try to build a structure to lay the groundwork so that we will be able to pass a law. My fear is that a law [now] would be precipitous, that it's going to yield to unintended consequences, that it's going to not have a net positive effect," he said.

Sklar criticized the GNI principles saying that the companies took far too long to come up with broad-stroked language that has no value in practice: "It took more than two years to come up with little more than a very general statement of principles in support of internet privacy with no real content and no effective enforcement mechanism."

Sklar added that the GNI fails to address the issue of U.S. technology exports to China being used to allow the Chinese government to monitor internet use on a broader basis.

"[The GNI] doesn't address US support of improving monitoring capability involving the internet in foreign countries," said Sklar.

Previous Version of Global Online Freedom Act Never Reached House Floor

Rep. Smith agrees that the GNI does not prevent IT companies from blocking web sites, controlling search engine results, or answering secret police subpoenas for information identifying dissidents so they can be tracked down and even imprisoned.

"Though GNI was a step in the right direction, it has not changed the bottom line," he said.

A previous version of GOFA, approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee in October 2007, did not reach the House floor.

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