The United States Congress is on the warpath -- and Internet giant Yahoo is on the receiving end.
Early last year, officials of the Beijing State Security Bureau had asked Yahoo China for information about dissident journalist Shi Tao. In an action that aroused ire worldwide, Yahoo elected to give up the information from its database; Tao was subsequently arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison for his pro-democracy writings.
The House (of Representatives) Foreign Affairs Committee is currently hauling over the coals Yahoo CEO and co-founder Jerry Yang over this incident.
Yang, and company counsel Michael Callahan, have expressed their regrets over the consequences of the act, but told the House committee that they had no option under Chinese law but to comply with an official request for information.
Media reports point out that Callahan also had to apologize for testimony he tendered during a February 2006 hearing, when he told a House sub-committee under oath that he did not know the information would be used to build a case against the dissident.
Committee staffers in course of their investigation later found that the Chinese State Police in its request asked for information relating to "state secrets" - a phrase, Representative Tom Lantos (Democrat, California) pointed out, was invariably used to build up or even fabricate cases against dissidents.
Even though he apologized for his "misleading" testimony of 2006, Callahan maintained that he was unaware that the company knew Tao's identity and profession when making the request.
Lantos was particularly severe on Yahoo during the latest hearings, suggesting their behavior was "embarrassing and appalling." He said "It was inexcusably negligent behavior at best and deliberately deceptive behavior at worst."
Lantos' colleague Rep. Lynn Woolsey, the junior Democrat from California on the committee, was equally scathing. "You guys have set a very poor example for your employees and the rest of the industry."
Rep. Christopher Smith (Republican, New Jersey) meanwhile introduced legislation to combat what he calls 'Internet abuse of democracy advocates and religious suppression.' The bill has been unanimously approved in committee, and will come up before the full House for a hearing and voting.
The Representatives urged Yahoo authorities to apologize to the mother of the jailed Chinese journalist, who was seated in the front row at the hearings, directly behind the witness. Media reports say when Yang and Callahan bowed to her, she returned the gesture and broke down in tears.
The two high profile Yahoo reps repeatedly pointed out that since Yahoo Inc holds only a 40 per cent share in Yahoo China, they cannot control policies relating to what information will be turned over on request and what will not. They also said no company official had been punished for turning over the documents to the Chinese authorites.
"As a person, I feel terribly. I feel I have some responsibility," Yang said, owning to a measure of responsibility though he was not CEO at the time of the incident.
Yang said the main learning from the experience was that the company needed to be more sensitive to human rights issues when making business decisions.
ABC News reports that at the end of the hearing, when the Yahoo executives promised to provide detailed answers to the committee, Lantos lost his temper.
"Look into your own soul and see the damage" caused to the journalist and his family, the senior Democrat reportedly shouted, before bringing the hearing to an end.