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While Shi Tao rots

Tom Lantos' very public upbraiding of Jerry Yang and his legal consigliere was every bit the Washington kabuki stage show I expected.

Tom Lantos' very public upbraiding of Jerry Yang and his legal consigliere was every bit the Washington kabuki stage show I expected.

The California Democrat was at his overdramatic best, raining torrents of verbal brimstone on the chastened heads of the Internet execs testifying before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Tuesday morning.

Going into today's hearing, Yang and Yahoo's General Counsel Michael Callahan had to know that they would be forced to dodge one salvo after the other. The last time Callahan was in front of Lantos, he assured the committee that Yahoo did not knowingly collaborate in the capture of a Chinese dissident. That was in February 2006, when he told the committee that Yahoo had no idea what Chinese authorities wanted with the information that ultimately helped locate the identity of Shi Tao.

Rep. Tom Lantos U.S. House of Representatives

But last week, Yahoo acknowledged that Callahan had indeed been told in October 2006 that the Chinese request included a reference to state secrets.

So either Yahoo was guilty of incompetence or they had been covering up a stink bomb. In his prepared remarks, Lantos described Yahoo as either being "inexcusably negligent" or "deliberately deceptive." Either way, it was not going to be a good day for the company and Lantos set the tone early.

"While technologically and financially you are giants, morally you are pygmies."

That was just the start. Later he was easily out-outraged by Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey, who made the comparison with firms that cooperated with Nazi Germany.

Nazi Germany?

The House hearing took place on the same day that Yahoo was reaping a windfall through its part ownership of Chinese Internet company Alibaba, which went public today. I'm sure that if Lantos was aware of the coincidence he would have popped a vein.

At this point, I'm not sure what will come from all this. Yang and the rest of the brass issued their humble apologies and mouthed the words scripted by their PR handlers. In time, they hope, this all will blow over and Yahoo can get back to fixing its broken corporate strategy.

Lantos and his committee did their little dance for the cameras and can pull the appropriate sound bytes for the fliers sent back to their home districts (Full disclosure: Lantos is my congressman.) And then what? While the House Committee on Foreign Affairs may offer a high-profile pulpit, its rhetoric doesn't so easily translate into policy--especially when it concerns China.

I think the answer has to come from the federal government stepping in and setting ground rules that U.S. companies should adhere to when confronted with demands from another nation's law enforcement arms.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of State concluded its its inaugural global Internet freedom conference. Yahoo, Google and Microsoft were hoping Uncle Sam would step into the void and offer real leadership. They're still waiting.

And so is Shi Tao, who still rots in prison.