Posts about yahoo

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.

Chinese excuses

Terry Semel keeps digging his hole deeper and deeper… pretty soon, he’ll reach China.

At the haughty D conference, he was questioned about Yahoo and China. This from the WSJ.com blog:

“I continue to be pissed off, outraged, and feel very very bad about it,” Mr. Semel said.

Well, I’m sure that makes the poor sap stuck in a Chinese prison for 10 years because he used Yahoo mail feel much, much better.

“But you have to follow the laws of the country you’re in.”

Enough with that company line. Would you have done business in South Africa under apartheid and run no pictures of black people? Would you have handed in Jews in Nazi Germany? Oh, but wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Someone asked that incredibly obvious question and he had an incredible answer.

One attendee asked Mr. Semel if Yahoo would have cooperated with Nazi Germany the same way it has with China. His response: “Yahoo has a basic obligation not to have a point of view on basic content, and to present content … and aggregate things and to allow people to make their own choices. I don’t know how I would have felt then.”

Good God, man! You don’t know how you would have felt? Who gives a damn about your feelings? This is about human rights. It’s about ethics. It’s about morality. It’s not about content. But now that you’ve brought it up, that’s ridiculous, too. Of course, you have a point of view on content: You buy some and not others. Dig, dig, dig. The next spadeful:

He added, “I don’t feel good about what’s happening in China today. I don’t feel good about some of the things that happen in our own country.”

So in one breath, he has managed to equate America with Communist China and Nazi Germany. Oh, I’m sure some flack will say he was taken out of context. The best way to fight that is to take yourself out of the context of trying to justify supporting dictators.

Semel also said:

Mr. Semel went on: “I don’t think any one company is going to change a country, and I dont think any one industry is going to change a country. “…

See Amnesty International’s call on companies as well as countries to support the cause of freedom.

Still, Mr. Semel said progress is being made, noting that the Chinese know more about American culture than ever before, thanks in no small part to the Internet. “To me, it’s about keeping the information flowing. Little by little, we start to bring about change.”

The Neville Chamberlain of the internet.

Yahoo strikes again

So I had a hissy fit sometime ago because Yahoo deactivated my email, which I think is a dumb thing to do to a prodigal customer who comes back and wants to try to use your service again. But I created a new identity for one purpose only: to try out the new Yahoo email. I waited patiently. I was told that finally, I could try out the new mail and when I had some spare time, I sat down prepared to enjoy what I’d heard such good things about. And what happens? Deactivated. I don’t care how groovy it is, I am not using Yahoo email or RSS if I cannot trust that it will be there. Old girlfriends and stray dogs are more loyal than Yahoo.

Compare and contrast that with Seth Godin’s Squidoo. A lens-creator (aka page-creator) there got an email saying that if he didn’t update his lens, it would killed. He blogged it. And Seth threw himself on his sword with abject apology and Squidoo sent email to all the affected users telling them to nevermind. [via Bubblegeneration]

I certainly hope Yahoo doesn’t start thinking they can kill my Del.icio.us and Flickr accounts because I don’t use them as often as they think I should. They did kill my beloved Oddpost, which I used for email — even paid for — as they took it behind the walls at Yahoo and cooked up the new email I am constantly thwarted from using.

This is why I say Yahoo is the last of the old media companies — because Yahoo thinks they’re in control. No, I’m in control. I’m using Gmail — which, it so happens, is good enough to use every day.

UPDATE AND APOLOGY: I do have a Yahoo account. I’ve had three recently. The first two were killed. But the third and latest is alive. My mistake. I am still antsy, having had prior identities zapped. But this one does exist. So my wrong. Oh, and I’m still not in the new mail.