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Yahoo! Risks Abusing Rights in China
Human Rights Watch Letter to Terry Semel
July 30, 2002

Terry Semel
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer
Yahoo! Inc.
701 First Avenue
Sunnyvale, California 94089

Dear Mr. Semel:


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Free Expression on the Internet

Corporations and Human Rights


We are writing to express our deep concern at news that Yahoo! Inc. has signed the "Public Pledge on Self-discipline for the Chinese Internet Industry" sponsored by the Internet Society of China, a government-affiliated organization.

Yahoo has been a leader in bringing the Internet to millions of people in China. Yahoo's e-mail, online forums, and other publicly accessible services have enabled millions of global users to communicate within and outside of their countries. By agreeing to the pledge, Yahoo threatens to undermine the positive potential of the Internet in China. Were Yahoo to implement its provisions, it could become complicit in violations of the right to free expression. Yahoo would be seen in China and around the world not so much as a portal offering access to new ideas, but as a gatekeeper for an oppressive government.

In recent months, the Internet Society of China has encouraged Internet businesses, government units and research institutes around China to sign on to this standard. While signing the pledge is not required by law, it is, along with China's many restrictive Internet laws, another repressive measure against China's rapidly growing virtual community.

By agreeing to the pledge, Yahoo is facilitating censorship by the government. The vague language of the pledge would appear to require Yahoo to identify and prevent the transmission of virtually any information that Chinese authorities or companies deem objectionable. Signatories agree to "[r]efrain from producing, posting or disseminating harmful information that may jeopardize state security and disrupt social stability, contravene laws and regulations and spread superstition and obscenity." Signatories must also "monitor the information publicized by users on websites according to law and remove the harmful information promptly"; and "[r]efrain from establishing links to the Web sites that contain harmful information so as to ensure that the content of the network information is lawful and healthy." There is no definition as to what constitutes "harmful information."

The government of the People's Republic of China systematically restricts freedom of expression. The China Democracy Party, an opposition political party formed within China, has been restricted, and its leaders arrested or forced to flee the country. Since 1989, student activists around the country calling for greater democratization and transparency have received prison sentences ranging from ten years to life. Chinese ethnic and religious minority activists who call for genuine autonomy or separatism, such as Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims, are routinely jailed. In Chinese prisons and labor camps all such political prisoners are often mistreated, denied medical treatment, and even tortured or executed. In China, in short, any public expression of views that differ from those of the state, and provision of information not deemed politically acceptable, may be considered "harmful" and may result in a prison sentence. There is a strong likelihood that Yahoo will assist in furthering such human rights violations.

China is a signatory to, though it has yet to ratify, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 19 of the Covenant states that "Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice." Any restriction on expression or on information must be prescribed by law. National security restrictions must have a genuine purpose and demonstrable effect of protecting a legitimate national security interest. The restriction imposed must be the least restrictive means possible for protecting that interest and must be compatible with democratic principles. In effect, the pledge places the burden on companies such as Yahoo to enforce the Chinese government's standards on freedom of expression.

We understand that Yahoo is obliged to abide by laws in countries where it does business, but Yahoo should make it a point to do everything in its power to avoid affirmatively endorsing insidious censorship practices. Signing the Public Pledge flies in the face of this principle. Yahoo should immediately and publicly clarify that it will abide by internationally recognized free expression standards, and that it will take no actions pursuant to the Pledge inconsistent with those standards. Yahoo should also clarify that if the only way to do business in China is to be complicit with government censorship, it will stop doing business there.

Were Yahoo to face demands to accept similarly restrictive standards in the United States or Europe, we are certain that you would do everything in your power to resist them, and that you would look to others to support your right to be free from censorship. Indeed, in April 2001, Human Rights Watch joined many other organizations in an amicus curiae brief standing by Yahoo when its Website was sued over its content.

Yahoo's image as an irreverent and open forum for free exchange is starkly contradicted by its willingness to abide by the repressive standards of the public pledge. As a standard bearer in an industry that depends on the free flow of ideas, it is not in Yahoo's interest to develop a split personality: innovative and open in the West, but tolerant of unlawful intrusions on expression in the East.

The pledge is an inappropriate commitment for an industry leader to undertake. We strongly urge Yahoo to withdraw from it. In the meantime, Yahoo should clarify its position on the censorship of Internet content to its users and the public in the interest of full disclosure, so that consumers can decide whether they wish to support such practices. In particular, users of Yahoo's Chinese-language website should be clearly informed what information will be monitored, what information will be excluded, and what will be reported to authorities.

On Friday, we contacted Yahoo several times by phone to request a meeting in order to discuss Yahoo's position in China, but received no response. We would greatly appreciate an opportunity to discuss this matter with you directly, and look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience.

Sincerely,

Kenneth Roth
Executive Director

cc:

Jerry Yang
Co-Founder, Director and Chief Yahoo

Chris Castro
Chief Communications Officer and Senior Vice President

John Costello
Chief Global Marketing Officer

Jon Sobel
Vice President General Counsel and Secretary