Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Yahoo and the risks of collaborating with the state

Yahoo founder Jerry Yang and his legal-eagle mouthpiece Michael Callahan got raked over the coals by members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee -- and deservedly so. Yahoo's crime was blithely surrendering the identity of an e-mail account holder to government authorities when served the Chinese equivalent of a subpoena. The account holder -- dissident journalist Shi Tao -- had used the account to disseminate a super-secret Chinese government directive forbidding journalists from covering the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Unmasked, Shi Tao was sentenced to ten years in prison.

Yang and Callahan protested that they were following "lawful orders" when they ratted out Shi Tao. They were right. The Chinese government was following its own legal rules in demanding the journalist's identity and then packing the unfortunate scribbler off to the hoosegow for embarrassing the state.

Committee Chairman Tom Lantos wasn't impressed.

"These were demands by a police state to make an American company a co-conspirator in having a freedom-loving Chinese journalist put in prison," he said. "Will you continue to use the phrase 'lawful orders,' or will you just be satisfied saying 'orders'?"

Lantos's outrage was well-founded. Laws, after all, can be whatever the government says they are, so long as officials follow their own procedures in getting even the most obnoxious rules passed. "Lawful" is not a synonym for right, or good, or moral. In the case of Shi Tao, Yahoo obeyed Chinese law and, in doing so, did the wrong thing.

We can thank Tom Lantos and his colleagues on the House Foreign Affairs Committee for pointing out that obedience to the law is no shield for bad behavior -- and for extracting a grudging commitment from Yang and Callahan to consider compensating Shi Tao's family for what their company has done.

But would Lantos and his fellows willingly apply their argument in a consistent fashion? What about intrusive and oppressive laws in other jurisdictions like, say, the United States?

Would Rep. Lantos advise a garden supply store to deny records of grow-light purchasers to DEA agents who want to persecute peaceful marijuana growers?

Would he praise a gun shop that refused to reveal the names of its customers to the notoriously abusive ATF?

I agree with Rep. Lantos that obedience to law doesn't absolve business people of moral culpability when they help government officials enforce dictates that violate individual rights. But I wonder if he embraces the full implications of his argument.

Duress makes a difference, of course. A person who names names when a gun is held to his head can be forgiven for foregoing martyrdom. And some businesses function under crippling rules -- the gun shop mentioned above, for instance -- that leave proprietors with an unpleasant choice between cooperating with government officials or completely denying the public access to certain goods and services.

But cooperating with the state is, at best, a morally questionable act. If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas; if you lie down with law-enforcement officers ... well ... you may have Shi Tao's fate to keep you up at night.

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