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Yelling at Yahoo

Pot calls Kettle black

The House Committee on Foreign Affairs, chaired by Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA), called the CEO and general counsel of Yahoo to testify and berated them as "moral pygmies."

The background: In 2004 the Chinese government ordered journalists not to report on the approaching 15th anniversary of the crackdown on protest in Tiananmen Square. Shi Tao, a Chinese journalist, forwarded the order to an overseas group using his Yahoo email account. The Chinese government demanded that Yahoo identify the user who had revealed this "state secret," and Yahoo complied. Shi Tao is now serving a 10-year sentence.

Yahoo was being condemned for having divulged the information to Chinese authorities and for testifying to the committee that it did not know the Chinese were attempting to suppress dissent.

Besides Lantos' name-calling, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) compared Yahoo to companies that cooperated and did business with Nazi Germany.

Jerry Yang, Yahoo CEO, testifies while Gao Qinsheng, the journalist's mother, sits behind him

When an American company does business in a foreign country it must abide by that country's laws. As Yahoo counsel Michael Callahan pointed out to the committee, "I cannot ask our local employees to resist lawful demands and put their own freedom at risk, even if, in my personal view, the local laws are overboard."

Tom Lantos Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA)

That, of course, did not satisfy Lantos, who said, "Why do you insist on using the phrase 'lawful orders'? These are the demands of a police state."

While Lantos and Smith may have produced good sound bites for the six o'clock news, name-calling and hyperbolic comparisons are beyond the pale. We have to demand more of our leaders.

John Chambers Bill Gates Jerry Yang John Chambers, Cisco; Bill Gates, Microsoft; Jerry Yang, Yahoo. Guess which one was called a moral pygmy?

Other companies comply with China's demands to control and track the flow of information. Cisco, for example, provides much of the technology for China's surveillance of internet traffic, and Microsoft helps cleanse the Chinese blogosphere. Would John Chambers or Bill Gates have been called a moral pygmy? I suspect that not-so-subtle racism was at play, just as it was in the George Allen "Macaca" incident and Don Imus' reference to the "nappy-headed" Rutgers volleyball team.

Before US lawmakers start casting stones, they'd do well to remember that they live in a big glass house. When Pervez Musharraf declared martial law in Pakistan, the reaction in Washington was tepid at best. The US has a long history of siding with despots and tyrants with dismal records on human rights.

Even more to the point: What China asked Yahoo to do is exactly what the US government is trying to do. After all, the Senate Intelligence Committee recently agreed to give the Bush administration what it wants: full retroactive immunity for the telecom companies against civil suits for helping the government eavesdrop without warrant on the phone and e-mail conversations of customers. It is already two years since the revelation that AT&T had been providing the NSA with a copy of all internet traffic passing through its hub in San Francisco.

Yes, we should be appalled at the Chinese government snooping through internet records to trace who sent what email to whom. We should be equally appalled when the US government does the same thing. Americans have got to wake up to the fact that our government is not pure as the driven snow. The US has lost the moral high ground, if it ever really had it, and playing the role of moral scold further erodes our standing.