The China problem

Fred Wilson and I see things differently regarding Terry Semel’s responses to questions on China. Fred says:

…Semel stated Yahoo!’s position that it was better to engage with China and push them at every opportunity to become more open than to leave the country entirely. It was a good position, in my opinion, and he made it well.

But then someone from the audience got up and asked a question. The question was what would Yahoo!’s position be if it was the Nazi Germany and Hitler instead of China. Semel said something to the effect that “I wasn’t even alive then, I don’t honestly know what we would do”.

Wrong answer. As Joe at Techdirt explains, when Hitler the Nazis come up, the best thing to do is end the discussion. Semel was clearly annoyed with the question but he should have refused the answer it instead of saying anything. Because that was a “why do you beat your wife” kind of question and there is no good answer to it.

This brings me to a larger point. Running a technology company in the Internet age requires a lot more political skills than it used to. The Internet is way more than a technology and companies that participate in its commercial development are in the political space as much as the tech space.

So Terry and his colleagues had better get used to questions like this and get some help in answering them (or not answering them).

I said in Fred’s comments:

No, Fred, he damned well should have answered it. This was not an effort to play the Hitler card. This was an effort to find some context in which Semel would finally address the ethical issues he has been ducking in regards to Yahoo’s behavior in China.

What are his limits? That was the question they were trying to get to. And clearly he still does not have an answer, though he has been asked essentially this question innumerable times (I heard him flub it less spectacularly only the week before at a New Yorker event and last year at Web 2.0). He keeps repeating the company line (which you report here) and then runs on empty.

So pick another example: Would Yahoo have done business in apartheid South Africa? That’s a legitmate question, I’d say. Don’t like historical hypotheticals? Fine. Would Yahoo do business in Saudi Arabia and allow women to drive the mouse and protect the identity of dissidents? Would it hand over the IP and identity of a blogger in Iran, where bloggers also get arrested for their speech?

Yahoo has choices. They can say: Yes, we’ll do business anywhere, business for business’ sake, which is what I hear Semel saying when he speaks as he does. Or he could refuse to do business in countries under threat from dictators. Or he could at least put up a fight when the dictators dictate.

But this is by no means just a political question. And it is not even just an ethical and moral question — though it is, Lord knows, that. It is very much a business question. For this shows the character and soul of Yahoo. And people will start deserting it if they do not trust it and do not like it and what it stands for (aka, its brand). I find boycotts troubling but I’ll still note that the National Union of Journalists has now called for one against Yahoo because of its policy on protecting free speech. That is a matter of business.

In this country, we’re screaming about net neutrality and trying to find ways to stop or boycott restrictive phone companies. That, unfortunately, looks like such trivial whining compared with the restrictions put on Yahoo users in China. They can find themselves in a Chinese prison for 10 years just for speaking.

We can judge the company that abets that crime accordingly. This is not just an issue of corporate responsibility — animal testing and all that. When we put our communications in the hands of a company, we put trust in that company. If we cannot trust that company, then we should not work with it. That is about business.

Semel does not have good and politic rhetoric because he does not have a good and convincing answer about Yahoo’s policy and moral responsibility to its users and to the principles of free speech and a free internet.

I signed up in support of Amnesty International’s pledge of internet freedom at Irrepressible.info. So perhaps that’s the question the next person should ask Semel; I’d be happy to. Will he agree to this:

“I believe the Internet should be a force for political freedom, not repression. People have the right to seek and receive information and to express their peaceful beliefs online without fear or interference. I call on governments to stop the unwarranted restriction of freedom of expression on the Internet – and on companies to stop helping them do it.”

That’s a fair question, eh? I wouldn’t trivialize the question asked of Semel. I’d see the question behind it, which remains unanswered.

: LATER: In the comments, Christian says:

Bottom line is Terry Semel is a plain fool. Even so, I still have to agree with yahoo’s decision to stick with the China market regardless of the restrictions they are bounded too. A limited internet is better than no internet or even worse a 100% controlled internet.

Good and important point. We can agree or disagree about Yahoo’s stance that some internet in China is better than no internet. That’s a legitimate argument. What’s troubling is that we have not heard a statement of principles here, other than Semel being unhappy. That’s what I think is missing here.

: Check out the comments on Fred’s site as well.

  • http://www.mguhlin.net/blog Miguel Guhlin

    Jeff, while I agree with your points, I’m having trouble articulating a specific plan of attach against Yahoo. My long-time email address-which I pay $20 a year for–is with them.

    If I call for a boycott, I have to figure out how to stop paying $20…not hard. But since I’ve never had an email back from them, short of protesting them on MY blog, what do you suppose we can do?

    Give us all a lesson in fighting tyranny against American companies screwing up overseas.

    Thanks,
    Miguel Guhlin
    http://www.mguhlin.net/blog

  • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

    Miguel,
    I don’t think a boycott is the right move. I think it’s about continuing to ask the question, keep the pressure on, so that giving in to the chinese is not always the easy course.

  • Christian

    Bottom line is Terry Semel is a plain fool. Even so, I still have to agree with yahoo’s decision to stick with the China market regardless of the restrictions they are bounded too. A limited internet is better than no internet or even worse a 100% controlled internet.

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  • http://mp.blogs.com Michael Parekh

    It seems a bit unfair to be criticizing JUST Yahoo!, Google and other internet companies for their activities in China. They’re being singled out when most of the world’s governments, industries and companies are rushing to build closer trade and investment relationships with China.

    There seems to be far less grass-roots criticism against them, while the senior executives at Yahoo!, Google etc., can’t seem to make a public appearance without being ambushed by headline-baiting interrogators.