internet - National laws and global systems
Jerry Yang of Yahoo and his spokeswoman made overtime yesterday, as they started to defend Yahoo's support ot China's judicial system in getting the Chinese journalists Shi Tao convicted. Since then the fallout has been enormous, so I decided to have a quiet weekend (well, what you call quiet) and the China Digital Times gives as usual a decent overview of most of the relevant articles on the issue.
Also Peter Goodman of the Washington Post comes up with some interesting details.
First, I think it is brave that Yahoo, unlike many other IT giants who found themselves in hot water, come out and defends its position. What does not help them is that their basic stand ("We have to comply with PRC-laws") does not make sense in this situations, as far as I can see it - but I might not see the whole story.
According to the Washington Post Yang said:
"I do not like the outcome of what happens with these things," Yang added. "But we have to follow the law."
I'm not sure what Jack Ma of Alibaba said is true. I said he only heard about the case on Saturday morning. I hope he is lying. Certainly as a part of a global company, you should follow this kind of events a bit more closely and I'm sure both partners would have talked about it. A press conference was cancelled, indicating the sensitivity of all parties involved.
Why do I think Yahoo did more than it had to do under Chinese law. Let go back a few year, when I attended a social event where I bumped into one of the senior officials of the legal departments Ministry of the Information Industry, who had just written the murky internet laws that got introduced just months before our meeting. Since it was a social meeting, I could not ask the 200 questions I should have asked, but the few answers I got were interesting enough.
Since the Chinese law writes about "Chinese" websites, companies, internet I wondered how the nationality of a website could be established. He looked at me and it was silent for a long time. "That is a good question," he said after a very long time. I know that nowadays that is a standard answer on US media you get after any question, but this developed really into a bit of an painful silence. "We will look where a website is hosted," he said after some time. "That would establish de nationality of a website."
I then decided that whatever I would do in China on the internet, my servers would be hosted outside China. At that time the quality of the service was also so poor, using China-based servers was anyway not an option. Hong Kong seemed much better and I have been advising internet companies over the years to do the same. Since then the legal system has developed and other jurisdictions have tried to get a grip on the internet, when it concerns their own national interests, but I do not think this fight is over yet.
Hong Kong is, for those who are not familiar with the 'one country, two systems' concept, in legal terms a different country, as also law professor Donald C. Clarke tries to explain in his blog. No way Chinese authorities can come to a Hong Kong company with a court order and tell them to comply.
It will be interesting to see how Yahoo is going to clear up the mess it created by its own ignorance.
Update: One of the commentors at this legal website says that the servers of Yahoo's email service are actually hosted in Beijing. That would indeed offer Chinese judicial authorities a handle to demand cooperation. And it would indicate that hosting your servers in China might in this case be a less-than-smart idea.