The collective amnesia over Shi Tao

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper says Silicon Valley would do well to borrow a page from the history of the antiapartheid struggle.

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
4 min read
I've always looked forward to April, with its promise of spring punctuated by the hopeful approach of another baseball season.

For a Chinese journalist named Shi Tao, however, next month marks a different sort of anniversary: it was in April 2005 that he was sentenced to 10 years in jail for "divulging state secrets abroad."

Few in Silicon Valley recall Shi Tao, let alone the questions raised by his imprisonment. But his conviction did spark an all-too-brief debate over how the technology industry in the United States ought to comport itself in an increasingly global marketplace.

Shi Tao was prosecuted after he e-mailed foreign reporters information issued by the Chinese government warning of possible trouble around the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. From the regime's perspective, that was an unforgivable no-no. The authorities soon tracked down Shi Tao because Yahoo's Hong Kong subsidiary supplied an IP address connecting a PC to a message containing his information.

Dun them as amoral yuppies, if you like, but the plutocrats running Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and Cisco aren't responsible for changing China's behavior.

Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang later said the company felt "horrible" about Shi Tao's plight, but maintained it still was "more important for us to participate, not only for economic reasons, but to be able" to help shape where the Internet industry is going in China. "You have to balance the risk of not participating. And people don't realize that being in the market every day there, and being on the ground, we are seeing changes, on the whole, for the positive."

It's easy to understand Yang's dilemma. Yahoo and other U.S. technology companies say they won't (can't?) very well walk away from business simply because of human rights issues. They must obey local laws if they want to do business in China. It's either conform or get out.

But the computer industry also faces criticism at home whenever an undemocratic government represses its citizens with American technology. Microsoft, Google and Cisco, companies that do big business in China, have been pilloried by U.S. politicians and the media because of their collaboration with Beijing.

What's frustrating is the kabukilike way this issue invariably gets played out. Here's how it works: The hired help in Washington tut-tuts for the cameras and makes sure the folks back home know they're fighting the good fight. The business leaders nod their heads in grave agreement and explain they too are working for the betterment of humankind.

But it's all insincere hoopla--on both sides--and nothing ever comes of it.

So it was that in early 2006, the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Human Rights called Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and Cisco to testify. It was quite the public roast, with the attending members of Congress making the most of the moment. Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), who fought as a partisan against the Nazis in World War II, struck a pose of dignified outrage and labeled their actions "a disgrace."

There also were big promises of legislative change ahead. Brad Sherman, a California Democrat, talked about an upcoming bill that would prevent U.S.-based employees of any company "from turning over confidential information to a repressive government...unless our government certifies that that information is being requested for a legitimate criminal investigation for a nonpolitical crime."

We're still waiting to see that wonderful new law. (Psst: Don't hold your breath.)

On the other side, the legal sharpies sent to Capitol Hill to defend the high-tech business had every angle covered. The congressmen did their best but still couldn't land a punch. You had to admire a rope-a-dope worthy of Muhammad Ali's best moments in the George Foreman bout.

Fact is, both sides blew an opportunity to find a way to resolve a bedeviling question. Dun them as amoral yuppies, if you like, but the plutocrats running Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and Cisco aren't responsible for changing China's behavior. Corporations are inherently conservative institutions and don't usually go out of their way to court controversy. And yet everyone knows these issues refuse to go away. So let me offer a few thoughts.

The computer business needs an agreed-upon set of guidelines. Something they can refer back to as a working document in case it comes down to a hard negotiation with another government. What will that accomplish? Maybe very little. Still, Silicon Valley would lose nothing by hashing out voluntary rules to govern its interactions with repressive regimes. Come up with a common framework that reflects the values and best practices of an industry whose products hold the potential both to unleash human potential or oppress dissent. With a little luck, Uncle Sam could help by providing diplomatic cover.

There is a precedent. In 1977, Rev. Leon Sullivan introduced a set of guidelines for U.S. multinationals doing business in South Africa. The document promoted a code of corporate conduct to support local blacks and fight apartheid from within. It didn't defeat the system by itself, but the Sullivan Principles played an important role in the struggle for equal rights in South Africa.

At a minimum, it's better than doing nothing, which is the preferred policy du jour. If I didn't know better, I'd swear this community has been struck by a bout of collective amnesia.

Meanwhile, Shi Tao has another eight years to rot in prison.