Yahoo yields to Chinese Web laws

The company says its decision to sign off on content limitations in the country doesn?t broaden existing laws. But critics say the move opens the door to censorship by the portal.

Yahoo on Tuesday defended its decision to sign off on voluntary content limitations in China, a move that critics say opens the door to online censorship by the Web portal.

The agreement, called the "Public Pledge on Self-Discipline for the China Internet Industry," essentially ensures that Internet companies in China will abide by the country's pre-existing regulations. Although these regulations are controversial, including requirements that companies monitor and restrict information deemed "harmful," the pledge does not broaden existing laws, according to Yahoo.

"The restrictions on content contained in the pledge impose no greater obligation than already exists in laws in China," said Greg Wrenn, associate general counsel at Yahoo. "If this called for a form of self-censorship beyond laws that exist in China, we would have serious questions."

Wrenn added that Yahoo will conform to local laws in countries where it operates. The pledge was signed in March by Yahoo's wholly owned subsidiary based in Hong Kong and Chinese software company Founder, which operates Yahoo China. Founder in 1999 licensed the Yahoo brand to operate the site and agreed to share revenue with the Web portal.

This is not the first time that Yahoo has yielded to the laws of another land. Yahoo was embroiled in a legal dispute in France two years ago after human rights groups sued the company for the sale of Nazi memorabilia on its site. A French judge sided with the groups and ordered Yahoo to block French citizens from accessing the material or face steep fines. A U.S. court later declared the French law unenforceable in the United States.

Still, some critics claim that Yahoo's public pledge could undermine its credibility as a leader in the Internet industry. Human Rights Watch, an organization critical of the Chinese Government's restrictions on free speech and expression, issued a public statement last week condemning Yahoo's signing of the pledge. The organization claimed that by signing the pledge, Yahoo is supporting a government known for its censorship of online information.

"Why take a public endorsement?" said Meg Davis, a spokeswoman for Human Rights Watch. "There doesn't seem to be a clear reason for them to be signing this pledge. The pledge is clearly in contradiction to international rights and to freedom of expression."

Davis added that, to her knowledge, no other Western company signed on to the pledge. Yahoo did not have any information to counter that claim.

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