Boycott Yahoo?

The SCMP is unlinkable, but luckily I got my hands on this complete, must-read article (it’s a pdf, I’m afraid but still required reading) on how Yahoo damaged itself with its handling of the Shi Tao incident. It quotes blogger Stephen Frost, who gets it just right:

Stephen Frost, research fellow at the Southeast Asia Research Centre at the City University of Hong Kong, said foreign internet companies were too caught up with making money in China and had failed to think through the potential fallout should they be called on to behave in ways unsettling to customers at home.

“While it is easy to get seduced by all the money that can be made out of these new technologies in China, there is a flip side to the coin. It’s taken Yahoo a number of years to develop a good reputation, but it has taken a couple of days in the blog frontline and mainstream media to bring that reputation into disrepute,” he said.

“This is the kind of thing that people don’t forget. It will always be there on the internet. Whenever you type in Yahoo and China in the search engine, these are the sorts of things that are always going to pop up. People will always sort of refer back to them: ‘You know Yahoo was the informant for the mainland police.'”

Read the whole thing, and then scroll down to the second article about Bill Gates whining about how Microsoft “was f*cked by China.” Coudn’t have happened to a nicer company.

The Discussion: 19 Comments

Even my mum is boycotting Yahoo since the Shi Tao thing, which is pretty impressive given how this is not really big news in the UK.

September 20, 2005 @ 2:02 am | Comment

Interesting. I think I’ll start boycotting them as well. Maybe. I still am not sure what to think.

September 20, 2005 @ 2:07 am | Comment

When it comes to seeking information on our users, we have a very clear-cut set of rules that any government has to engage with us through court documents, legal documents and legal procedures.

We get a lot of those every day around the world. We get hundreds of those in the US, we get hundreds in Europe, we get a lot of them in China. We do not know what they want that information for. We’re not told what they look for. If they give us the proper documentation and a court order, we give them things that satisfy both our privacy policy and the local rules.

Sounds like what Yahoo did was very reasonable. The proper procedure was followed, with court orders and all that. The problem is with the PRC’s laws and legal system, not with Yahoo.

Also, I wonder if there’s any ulterior motives behind all the sensationalistic reporting by Yahoo’s media competitors. Many of these companies would have a lot to gain if significant numbers of Yahoo’s readers/viewers joined a boycott.

September 20, 2005 @ 2:12 am | Comment

As much as I despise the CCP and their repressive hold on power, I can’t much blame Yahoo for this. They accepted a license to do business in China and the disclosure rules are very clear. To refuse to name their customer would have been a crimianal offense. They did what local law required. The subscriber was careless in not ascertaining whether or not his confidentiality would be protected. It’s an ugly situation but I don’t think that Yahoo is the primary culpret here.

September 20, 2005 @ 3:01 am | Comment

I noticed Rebecca MacKinnon was on about this again as well. Conrad and Hui Mao are right. Just as Chinese companies in the USA are subject to American laws and procedures, the reverse is true.

September 20, 2005 @ 4:05 am | Comment

I agree. Yahoo did not send the authorities copies of his email or allow them access to his account, just his address. In the same way as we would want a credit card company to give the police the address of a cardholder if useful to their investigation, Yahoo doesn’t seem to have done anything wrong. As Huimao has said, the problem is with the Chinese legal system and authorirties.

While the anonymity of the internet is liberating I do not think that it should be preserved in contravention of national laws. If I do something illegal, such as peddle paedophilia, then I should be traceable.

On another note:- why is the SCMP always referred to as “the unlinkable SCMP”? Are we insinuating that is a crime for the SCMP to want to protect its copyright (or at least the copyright of the journalists at AFP who wrote the articles)? Either infringe on their intellectual property rights by copying the article, or let readers pay for the pleasure just like everyone else.

September 20, 2005 @ 4:26 am | Comment

Hey, I’m back in the US for a bit, and not online as much for a while. I just happened to see this pop up again. I’m glad to see that there are some more rational minds around.

I don’t see why there’s more of an impetus to boycott Yahoo than, say, Walmart or Nike. Perhaps because the one single victim is more obvious than the 1.3 billion?

Another point I never saw made: Shi Tao was using a … account. If he had used a account, Yahoo wouldn’t have had to provide the CCP his IP address. Note to people doing illegal things in China: don’t use local email!!

September 20, 2005 @ 8:50 am | Comment

Yeah, Sean. Perhaps people doing illegal things like subverting the government in US should heed this warning as well.

Our ISPs in US are subject to the National Security Letter provision of the USA Patriot Act, which makes pretty much the same demands for information, in secret.

And ever heard of FBI projects like Carnivor or Magic Lantern?

September 20, 2005 @ 12:09 pm | Comment

Yahoo cooborates with mainland Chinese police, provides information

Bloggers and human rights groups are calling for a boycott of Y ahoo after the United States inteernt giant supplied information to the Chinese central government that led to a 10-year prison sentance for mainland journalist Shi Tao.
Many are saying …

September 20, 2005 @ 1:18 pm | Comment

Tucker, I have the permission of the SCMP to post this article – that’s why it is pdf’d. And it is unlinkable. Thus, we refer to it as “the unlinkable SCMP.” So make sure you know what you’re talking about.

I am not advocating the boycott of Yahoo, and thus the question mark in my headline. If you saw my earlier posts on this, I am very cautious about blaming them. I do, however, give them an F-minus on tyheir handling of this from a PR perspective. To view the damages, simply take a look here

September 20, 2005 @ 6:41 pm | Comment

I was asking why the SCMP is always referred to as “the unlinkable SCMP” rather than just the SCMP? It appeared to me that it was some sort of criticism. If not then I am mistaken and apologise.

September 20, 2005 @ 7:55 pm | Comment

Tucker, when you wrote the following:

Are we insinuating that is a crime for the SCMP to want to protect its copyright (or at least the copyright of the journalists at AFP who wrote the articles)? Either infringe on their intellectual property rights by copying the article, or let readers pay for the pleasure just like everyone else.

…it sure sounded like you were making some sort of critical statement. If not, apologies for the misunderstanding. I was insinuating nothing – whenever i can’t provide a link, I tell readers the pub is unlinkable. Same with the Wall Street Journal.

September 20, 2005 @ 8:01 pm | Comment

I’m genuinely surprised that people are boycotting Yahoo. After all, they are not the first company guilty of snuggling up to the CCP. They are not even the first Internet company to do the repressive CCP’s bidding.

I’m with Hui Mao and COnrad. Yahoo are as subject to China’s laws as Chinese firms operating in the states are subject to US laws.

Also, there are thousands of US and Western firms doing business in CCP-controlled China. Is Yahoo really that different to Boeing, Intel, Apple etc etc?

September 20, 2005 @ 9:28 pm | Comment

As you can see by my email, I am not boycotting Yahoo (though I may switch to gmail because of spam). Remember Martyn, the Internet gang (bloggers especialy) is very concerned with the concepts of free speech and personal liberties. What Yahoo did humanized the sins the other companies may have committed and gave a face to a victim, and caused everyone to think about being sentenced to 10 years in a dungeon for a fricking email. Forget about whether Yahoo had to do it or not. All that matters in the answer to your question is how people are seeing this with their emotions, which is creating a sense of revulsion, deserved or not, toward a company that was considered hip, liberal and enlightened. So while the call for a boycott is irrational, the harm it might do to Yahoo is very real, and the fact that people are responding this way, with their emotions, is fairly predictable. (Remember, my job is to manipulate people’s emotions, so I understand how this feeding frenzy works, all started by a sensitive story in the media that creates shock waves around the world.)

September 20, 2005 @ 9:47 pm | Comment


I coined the phrase “the unlinkable SCMP” during my days as a blogger. The phrase was picked up and has since become widely used by China bloggers. As its author, it was intended (a) to indicate why there was no link to the article referred to and (b) as a criticism of the SCMP’s shortsighted refusal to allow access to any of their content by non-subscribers.

I agree that the SCMP can institute whatever policies it chooses with respect to its IP, however, given its weak financials, falling circulation, and the fact that it is relatively unknown outside of the region, I think it is a stupid marketing strategy.

As the leading English language newspaper in China that is actually protected by free press laws (due to being in HK) the SCMP could have benefited from the attention that numerous blog links would have brought it. Rather than being an obscure regional publication, the SCMP could have become known as the blogosphere’s “go to” daily source of China news.

Instead, we subscribers read the article on the SCMP, find and post the link for the similar article on the Standard. As a result, the Standard’s websight’s hits and advertising rates benefit at the expense of the SCMP.

September 21, 2005 @ 2:39 am | Comment

I just read Rebecca MacKinnon’s important post, and I’m still not convinced it’s as black and white as some of us think.

September 21, 2005 @ 5:49 am | Comment

Conrad speaks sense. A free online scmp would surely rasie its profile into a world newspaper.

The only thing that concerns me is that perhaps the editorial staff are afraid of drawing attention to the semblance of freedom it enjoys vis-a-vis the ccp.

COnrad, the scmp was a real paper before 1997. Not it is a shadow of its former self.

September 21, 2005 @ 2:23 pm | Comment

Thanks, Richard. I hadn’t seen the story that quoted me.

I should add that my point in that interview was about reputational risk and how few IT companies seemed to be aware of how their name could be damaged in the China market. There’s certainly a lot of money to be made, but it’s one of those markets where reputations can be damaged as quickly as making money. Throw in human rights, and you have a potent mix (more potent I think than the ‘sweatshop’ story that’s dogged Nike, Reebok, Adidas, etc for years).

Reputations are intangible and only Yahoo can make an assessment on whether it’s worth being in China. I was trying to make it clear to a non-blogging audience that this story will be on Google forever and bloggers will always have the opportunity to link back to it to demonstrate a negative point about the company.

Personally, I’m not one for telling companies whether they should do business in China or not, and so my comments here weren’t an argument to boycott Yahoo (and I doubt if they’ve been taken that way). What I did go on to say was that Yahoo could do two things:

1. Make it absolutely transparent to existing and potential customers that if asked they will hand over information to authorities. Don’t hide that information away in fine print or on a legal page on the website.

2. Develop an internal policy document that outlines the company position on its role in China and where it stands on freedom of information, blogging, privacy, etc. And then publicise it. Engage in debates over Yahoo’s role in China. Make the case for being there. Etc.

By not doing these things, Yahoo looks like it’s sneaky, even though it does have a document that states it will hand over information. But I bet hardly a single user knows that. By openly declaring its position on key issues and being explicitly transparent, the company could probably have saved itself a very messy and damaging issue.

It’s not an easy issue to resolve. The analogy in the manufacturing supply chain is the freedom of association (FOA) issue (i.e., independent unions). China has one legal union federation (ACFTU) and therefore does not have FOA. FOA is an ILO Core Convention. It is regarded as a human right. Yes everyone sources from China. Should companies like Nike refuse to source from China over FOA, or are other conditions improved by them being there (better health and safety, wages, etc)?

Boycotting Nike would have – I’d suggest – no impact on sourcing location whatsoever. And if every company sourcing from China cut orders tomorrow, would conditions improve for Chinese workers? That’s a no brainer, but what to do in the absence of FOA is less easy to work out. And I think the same holds true for the Yahoo case.

Which brings me back to my original point. Nike, Adidas and Reebok are fairly transparent about their supply chains. They’re certainly a lot more transparent about what they’re doing in China than Yahoo. Yahoo could learn from that and show how it’s actually doing more good than harm and being more transparent on key privacy and information issues.

September 21, 2005 @ 11:49 pm | Comment

In order to maintain the concept of freedom and free speech, people need to hold certain inalienable rights above the laws of mere governments.

We have a man in prison for 10 years because he wanted to spread innocuous information about something the Chinese government didn’t like. That is just wrong, and the people responsible deserve recrimination.

To simply say, “Yahoo was just obeying Chinese laws, so don’t boycott them” is to think like cattle.

September 22, 2005 @ 1:38 pm | Comment

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