John Paczkowski

Recent Posts by John Paczkowski

Good Effort, Moral Pygmies…

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

— Rep. Tom Lantos (D., Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, to Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang and General Counsel Michael Callaghan, Nov. 6, 2007

Yahoo’s public shaming before the House Foreign Affairs Committee last November apparently had quite an effect on Internet companies cooperating with Chinese government censorship and demands for information on dissidents. Less than a year after that brutal Capitol Hill humiliation, during which Committee Chairman Tom Lantos (D., Calif.) lambasted Yahoo’s leadership as moral “pygmies,” Yahoo (YHOO), along with Microsoft (MSFT) and Google (GOOG), is introducing a code of conduct that will govern their business practices in repressive countries. The Global Network Initiative, as it’s called, commits the companies to a general support for freedom of expression on the Internet, requiring them to at least try to “avoid or minimize the impact of government restrictions on freedom of expression” and to “narrowly interpret and implement government demands that compromise privacy.”

“The idea is that we believe the guidelines will need to be reviewed, and we will have to revise them as we take into account the actual experience,” said Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, which helped draft the initiative. “It envisions an ongoing process of learning and sharing best practices.”

That’s a great step forward for firms like Google, which censors its search results in China, and Yahoo, which handed over emails to the Chinese government that led to the imprisonment of two journalists. But with no bans or sanctions on any specific conduct and most of its key guidelines left entirely up to interpretation, The Global Network Initiative seems more like an effort on the part of the participating companies to avoid legislation on their conduct abroad than anything else–a “We Promise to Be Good if You’ll Just Leave Us Alone” code, if you will. “After two years of effort, they have ended up with so little,” said Morton Sklar, executive director of the World Organization for Human Rights USA. “It is really very little more than a broad statement of support for a general principle without any concrete backup mechanism to ensure that the guidelines will be followed.”