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Yahoo's Yang: No easy answers in China Net-censorship debate

Online portal chief reiterates calls for the U.S. government to take a leading role in asserting the rights of cyberdissidents abroad, saying companies like his can't go it alone.

Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang cracks a smile while chatting with reporters after a speech Thursday at Georgetown University. Anne Broache/CNET

WASHINGTON--The last time Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang was called from Silicon Valley to the nation's capital, politicians lambasted him as a moral "pygmy" and subjected him to multiple hours of grilling about the company's role in the conviction of a Chinese cyberdissident.

But in a dim, historic library on Georgetown University's campus here on Thursday afternoon, the portal's chief executive was a guest of honor--or, as university President John DeGioia put it, "an individual of such great distinction...someone who deeply understands the importance of scholarship to the advancement of society."

Yang was there to offer "reflections" during a program spotlighting research by Irene Wu, the first recipient of a Yahoo-sponsored scholarship designed to encourage studies focused on the links between international values and Internet technology. He used the brief appearance to reiterate his call for the U.S. government to lead the way on what he characterized as the difficult issue of doing business in countries with more restrictive laws.

"Every day we witness multiple laws, multiple jurisdictional issues," he said in response to an audience member's question after a brief scripted speech. "These are not issues that I think we can arbitrarily decide as a company. More often than not we are faced with very gray areas of freedom of expression versus censorship, legal versus not legal."

Yahoo--along with Microsoft, Google, and others--has endured heated criticism from members of Congress and human rights groups (and a handful of lawsuits) for providing information about its users to the Chinese government, allegedly prompting arrests and imprisonment of dissidents for dubious reasons. The companies have said that such cooperation is necessary to comply with Chinese law. (Yahoo currently owns about a 40 percent stake in Yahoo China and sold the rest to the Chinese company Alibaba Group a few years ago.)

Since then, those companies been working with academics, human rights organizations, and socially responsible investors to try to draw up industry standards for dealing with countries that limit information flows and their citizens' freedom of expression. Yang said in his Thursday speech that he hopes a final product will be announced in the "near future."

Thursday's event, which lasted about and hour and was followed by a wine-and-cheese reception, drew about 70 people, most of whom were Georgetown students and faculty. Among the attendees were two of Yahoo's top in-house lawyers, Michael Callahan and Michael Samway, and human rights activist Harry Wu, who is helping to coordinate a humanitarian aid fund that Yahoo established as part of a high-profile settlement Yahoo reached last year with two jailed dissidents and their families.

Harry Wu and Yang also met jointly with House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein about human rights issues earlier on Thursday, a Yahoo spokeswoman said.

At the Georgetown event, Yang urged the government to take an active role as well, citing his calls earlier this year for Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to help secure the release of jailed Chinese political dissidents who used the Internet to spread information.

"Companies in our industry try to figure this out on our own...but we think we're hitting more gray areas than ever before," Yang said, later adding: "I do think we will have to come up with different models that work in different places. At least I'm convinced there's not a one model fits all answer to that question."

Although they've welcomed government involvement on the diplomatic front, Internet companies have been less enthusiastic about new regulations backed by human-rights groups that would require them, among other things, to store electronic communications outside designated Internet-restrictive countries.

The Yahoo fellowship at Georgetown is slated to continue for eight years, with next year's fellow expected to be picked by month's end, said John Kline, director of the master of science in the school's Foreign Service Program. Yang said he hopes the scholars who receive the awards may help to resolve how companies should sort out conflicting laws and moral regimes.

Irene Wu, for her part, already holds a doctoral degree and used her fellowship to take a hiatus from her post as director of research at the Federal Communications Commission's international bureau. The self-professed "intellectual adventure" allowed her to study the extent to which technology over the years has produced a "transformative effect" on international politics.

And just in case anyone was wondering, we reporters in attendance didn't shirk our duties to swoop down upon Yang after the event and inquire about the latest on Microsoft's big bid. In response, predictably enough, he flashed us a smile and declined to comment.