Yahoo executives grilled by Congress over China policies: Live-blogging

With title of House hearing, "Yahoo! Inc.'s Provision of False Information to Congress," you can be sure this particular event will be be fair, neutral, and objective.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
6 min read

The U.S. House of Representatives is holding a hearing titled "Yahoo! Inc.'s Provision of False Information to Congress." With a title like that, you can be sure this particular event will be be fair, neutral, and objective.

What led to Tuesday morning's hearing are two events. The first: information Yahoo provided to Communist authorities was allegedly used to convict Shi Tao, a 37-year-old journalist, of leaking "state secrets." The second: Yahoo General Counsel Michael Callahan may have given not-entirely-accurate information to the House when testifying during the last time Yahoo was dragged onto the carpet to be criticized by politicians. This time, Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang is testifying along with Callahan.

Yahoo's Callahan and Yang are sworn in on Tuesday U.S. House of Representatives

It's not entirely clear yet what Rep. Tom Lantos, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, is so upset about. He claims that his "committee has established that Yahoo provided false information to Congress in early 2006." Yahoo, on the other hand, says its testimony was accurate at the time it was given in February of last year.

Update 10:08 am ET: Yang and Callahan seem to have sat down at the witness table, according to the fuzzy Webcast. The photographers are swarming.

Update 10:17 am ET: Lantos is asking Yang and Callahan to account for "their company's spineless and irresponsible actions." They probably won't be able to get a chance to speak for the better part of an hour.

Update 10:20 am ET: Lantos' charges now seem clear. Apparently, the Beijing State Security Bureau provided a document to Yahoo--similar to the FBI's national security letters--to Yahoo China on April 24, 2004. It invoked the term "state secrets" when demanding information about Shi Tao. Callahan never saw the document, which was written in Chinese, before testifying last year. Lantos says Callahan should have demanded a translation before his testimony, and Yahoo should have known that any request invoking state secrets is suspect because "state secrets is a trick phrase used to fabricate phony but devastating (charges against an) innocent person who shares our values in an open and free society."

Update 10:25 am ET: Lantos did admit in an aside that "Mr. Callahan has not been accused of perjury" and that "Mr. Callahan may not have known the relevant facts personally."

Rep. Tom Lantos U.S. House of Representatives

Update 10:30 am ET: Now the two Yahoo execs are being asked to apologize to Shi Tao's mother, who is sitting in a front row of the hearing room. Lantos: "I would urge you to beg the forgiveness of the mother whose son is languishing behind bars thanks to Yahoo's actions." I wonder if Lantos and other Patriot Act supporters will apologize to Americans like Brandon Mayfield (falsely jailed under the Patriot Act) or Sami al-Hussayen (a Webmaster who provided hyperlinks to Muslim sites and was prosecuted under the Patriot Act).

Update 10:45 am ET: Rep. Chris Smith, the New Jersey Republican who was chairman of the Foreign Affairs panel last year, is now speaking. He's saying that "Yahoo knew the police requests had to do with 'state secrets.'" That may not be as descriptive as he (and the other panelists) seem to think. It seems to me that it's a catchall term that's probably invoked regularly by China's security apparatchiks. It's not like the police requests said "give us this information so we can put an innocent journalist in jail."

Update 10:52 am ET: Wow. Not one politician on this committee is saying anything that might be remotely perceived as defending Yahoo or even moderating the attacks. Has Yahoo's government affairs shop been asleep at the switch?

Update 10:55 am ET: I wish Lantos was as enthusiastic about free speech and privacy for Americans as he is for Chinese citizens, but his record on those topics isn't great.

Update 10:58 am ET: Rep. Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican, is lauding Lantos' "moral leadership on this committee."

Update 11:01 am ET: After being blasted for nearly an hour, neither Yahoo representative has been permitted to say a word so far.

Update 11:07 am ET: Rep. Adam Smith, a Democrat from Washington state, was the first committee member not to lambaste Yahoo. Smith: "It's not a simple black and white decision... What laws can companies chose to not obey? If it's a law on the books... when can they say we're not going to follow it? It comes up in the U.S. and it comes up in Europe where free speech is not protected (in some cases)." Smith's 9th district includes Seattle suburbs near Microsoft's headquarters.

Update 11:10am ET: Keep in mind the background here: Many politicians simply detest China not for reasons relevant here (a brutal thuggish regime) but for unrelated ones (cheap products and its currency peg to the U.S. dollar). Others, like Smith, a Roman Catholic, are fiercely anti-China because of its persecution of religious minorities. In other words, Yahoo is being used as a convenient way to attack China for unrelated reasons.

Update 11:20 am ET: Yahoo is finally getting a chance to reply. Jerry Yang to Shi Tao's family: "I want to personally apologize to them for what they and their families are going through."

Update 11:35 am ET: Now it's Callahan, Yahoo's general counsel, who's up. Callahan: "I now know the demand did contain additional information... related to 'state secrets.'" He added: "The fundamental point remains unchanged: We did not know the case related to a journalist... We did not know this was a political case."

Update 11:50am ET: Lantos asks about Yahoo holding the personal data of Chinese citizens: "By what judgment do you call these orders lawful? These were demands by a police state."

Update: 12:20pm ET: Now it's Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican: "Were any of them fired?" He's referring to Yahoo employees. Rohrabacher again: "Are you going to comply with requests from authoritarian governments in the future?" Callahan replies: "We are looking at ways to operationally and legally structure the entity... so we would not have to do that."

Update: 12:37pm ET: What's a little odd is that these politicians' complaints against China are true. China ranks in the bottom 10, below Somalia and just above Burma, of Reporters Without Borders' 2007 press freedom index. The odd part is that, because the committee members can't exactly get China's state security folks to show up, Yahoo is being held responsible by proxy for the content and operation of these laws. This should be a lesson to U.S.-based Internet companies: geography still matters. Be very careful when physically placing servers in an a country like China.

Update 12:52pm ET: Lantos again, to Yahoo's Callahan, excerpted: "Morally you are pygmies... An appallingly disappointing performance. I think we cannot begin to tell you how disappointing Mr. Yang's and your performance was... attempt to obfuscate and divert... outrageous behavior."

Update 1:09pm ET: Now the discussion has swung to the details of U.S-based Yahoo Inc.'s relationship with Yahoo China and Alibaba.com. Yahoo is a minority investor in the Alibaba Group, which operates Yahoo China and other sites like Taobao.com, China's biggest online auction site. After Alibaba's public offering on the Hong Kong stock exchange this week, meaning this hearing's timing may be not coincidental, it's valued at $23 billion. Yahoo says that it's impressed upon Alibaba's management the importance of following due process, but that because of its minority-investor relationship it wouldn't necessarily know about routine subpoenas seeking information about Alibaba users.

Update 1:21pm ET: Yahoo's Yang, parapharased: When we went into China in 1999, we were a young company in a young market. A quote, now, in an attempt to mend fences: "We will take more responsibility both morally and ethically."

Update 1:28pm ET:: An interesting exchange between Rep. David Wu, an Oregon Democrat, and Callahan. Wu is trying to find out whether or not Yahoo has liaison officers with the State Security Bureau and the Public Security bureau; one Yahoo representative apparently told a congressional aide that there were two officers. Callahan said he had no knowledge of them. Wu: "The two statements seem to be diametrically opposed."

Update 1:30pm ET: It turns out that they may not be. Callahan is obviously lawyered-up, and has a few consultations with his own attorney sitting behind him. Wu had tried to suggest that Callahan denied the existence of liaison officers; but Callahan eventually replied that "I was not aware that there is an office" and he'll look into it and come back with a full answer.

Update 1:32pm ET: It's over, with one last speech from Lantos targeting Yahoo, but not the Communist government of China, for creating "enormous damage" to the families of those who are imprisoned.