Yahoo and MSN...for Tibetans...

Caught in a culture war: Yahoo!'s sticky China situation

I reported on Friday that France24 published screenshots showing that Yahoo! China published an item on its front page linking to a wanted list and photo gallery of Tibetan fugitives with a police number that people can call with any information about them. According to AFP, here's the response from Yahoo! public relations:

"Contrary to media reports, Yahoo! Inc. is not displaying images on its web sites of individuals wanted by Chinese authorities in connection with the recent unrest in Tibet," it said in a statement sent to AFP in Paris.

"We are looking into this matter with Alibaba Group, the company that controls China Yahoo!," the company said.

Are they implying that France24 fabricated the screenshots then? I suppose they are technically correct by saying "is not displaying" - since by the time Yahoo! p.r. made the statement, the item was in fact no longer there. Still, you'd think that Yahoo! - after all they've been through with the Shi Tao case - would know better than to issue such stupid p.r. statements, setting themselves up for more grief and accusations of dishonesty as more facts emerge.

Roland Soong has collected a lot of material on the "most wanted Tibetans" story in a long post. He responds to my last post by saying:

Well, who is Yahoo! China going to please here? On one hand, there are their corporate masters located in the United States who evaluate the public relations implications of their actions and this may have been the decision here to avoid yet another Congressional hearing. On the other hand, it will be hell to pay in China if word gets out that Yahoo! China will not assist in chasing down the criminals who perpetrate the criminal acts that have been broadly publicized around the world because of the fear of bad publicity in America.

Meanwhile another interesting item about Alibaba - which currently operates Yahoo! China - was brought to my attention. On Wednesday Reuters reported: Alibaba seeks buyers for Yahoo-owned stake: source. Here are the first two paragraphs:

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - China's Alibaba Group is seeking investors to buy the 39 percent stake in the Internet company held by Yahoo Inc, a person with direct knowledge of the situation said on Tuesday, outlining a plan that could stop Microsoft Corp from getting the Alibaba stock.

Alibaba's move indicates it thinks Microsoft is likely to win its $42.4 billion bid to buy Yahoo, in which case the Chinese company would prefer increased independence, the person said. The source did not want to be identified because of the sensitivities surrounding the discussions.

Maybe they're looking for investors who are less worried about being yelled at in congress and condemned by human rights groups?

Roland is right, Yahoo! China and MSN and all the other foreign-branded web businesses in China are caught between a rock and a hard spot in times of crisis such as the Tibet riots. There will be more such tight spots to come. In China, the Internet portals are not allowed to run original news reporting and are required to run news reports from a set of approved sources. That means that on any given story, you aren't going to get any news on any major story that the government didn't want disseminated. These portals receive feeds from approved news sources which they republish without editors giving too much thought to the "news angle" being portrayed, because it's the only angle available. During normal times, this is just a fact of life and is not particularly remarked upon. In times of crisis, when China and the West see things very differently, it becomes much more problematic. Since there's no way to run a web portal without following the rules about news sources, either you follow the rules or you don't bother doing business.

Just think: what if Yahoo! China and MSN China had been around in 1989 for the June 4th crackdown? Could they have refused to run the government's version of events on their portals - and the most-wanted lists of student protesters - without losing their licenses? How would the West have reacted if the companies had gone along with Chinese government requirements? Western companies with web businesses in China and those who invest in the whole sector should think through what they will do if something even worse than the Tibet riots happens - something on which China and the West are equally divided over who the good guys and the bad guys are. Because more things like this will happen. And these companies will be accused of aiding the "bad guys" by people back home. What then?

For those who cannot read Chinese it is interesting to note that the top headline on Yahoo! China's home page reads: 568名暴力事件受害群众获救助, or "568 victims of the violent incident receive aid and assistance." Click through that story (from the official Xinhua news agency) and scroll down to the bottom for more stories that Yahoo! China is running on the Tibet unrest. All are from the Xinhua news agency or other similarly government-sanctioned sources and include titles like "The truth about the March 14th Lhasa riots" and "Some national governments support China's legal handling of the criminal violent incident in Lhasa." It is also important to note that many Chinese portals like Sina.com have a lot more special coverage content about the riots, with headline stories denouncing the Dalai Lama, and much more in-depth content (favoring the Chinese point of view) about the whole situation than Yahoo! China has. But the problem Yahoo! China faces is that they are stuck with no other choice than to run relatively light coverage on the country's biggest national news story, because to cover it heavily would require using government-sanctioned content only, which puts them in the position of "taking sides," as it were.

It makes me really glad I'm not in charge of a foreign-invested or foreign-branded web business in China that has anything remotely to do with news. I'm actually starting to think that over the long run it may turn out to be impossible for multinationals to run commercially successful local news and user-generated content portals in local markets other than their home markets, plus markets that are politically similar or sufficiently aligned to the home country geopolitically. If you're in a market whose geopolitical interests and world view are vastly different from the home market, I don't see how you avoid this kind of "lose-lose" situation in inevitable times of crisis.

In closing I'd like to respond to a commenter who accused me of "siding with rioters." I don't believe I ever did that. For a person to kill and injure other human beings who haven't directly endangered one's own life is always wrong. The rioters who committed violent acts have sadly discredited their movement (which has never been unified in its goals and tactics, anyway, which in addition to PRC thuggishness is another reason why it hasn't gotten much of anywhere). Is the Chinese government going to handle the aftermath with sensitivity and fairness? I've seen little precedent for it. If the Chinese government wants to prove it can sort things out with sensitivity and fairness they shouldn't have kicked out the foreign media. Do I think that the Chinese government is manipulating information? Yes, because from my long experience living in China, they always have. Do I think a lot of the Western media are over-simplifying the situation, playing to their audiences' desire for a "freedom fighters vs. communist thugs" story line and getting lots of facts wrong? Also yes. Do I think that the Chinese government's treatment of Tibet created genuine anger which made an eventual violent outburst likely if not inevitable? Yes again. Do I think that the Tibetan people's lives would be better off if outside powers were to support a civil war of independence? No. Do I think that the Tibetan people's lives (and the lives of many other ethnicities who now live in Tibet) would be better off if China granted independence to Tibet tomorrow? It's questionable. Would Tibet be free of human rights problems if it became independent tomorrow? I don't think so either. That's why the Dalai Lama advocated some kind of negotiated autonomy instead of independence as the only realistic solution at this point. The riots have likely killed that possibility. But to say the Chinese government is blameless because ethnic Tibetans committed deplorable violence last week is just as naive as to claim that the Tibetan rioters were heroes.

Yahoo and MSN (briefly) aiding Chinese police hunt for Tibetans

Domestic Chinese news websites today are running a wanted list and photo gallery of Tibetan fugitives with a police number that people can call with any information about them. Here is the Sina.com special Tibet coverage page (click to enlarge):

Sina Tibet

The French TV station France24 has a report on their citizen media "Observers" website showing a screenshot of Yahoo! China's front page which at some point today displayed the "most wanted" ad, linking to the full photo gallery and list. The report says:

Yahoo China pasted a "most wanted" poster across its homepage today in aid of the police's witch-hunt for 24 Tibetans accused of taking part in the recent riots. MSN China made the same move, although it didn't go as far as publishing the list on its homepage.

Here is their report and Yahoo! China screenshot:

France24 Yahoo Tibet

Here is the MSN China screenshot:

Msn Tibethunt

The report does not say what time the screenshots were taken. As of this writing, neither Yahoo! China nor MSN China are running the "most wanted" information anywhere that I have been able to find. (If anybody does find it in some corner of those sites where I've failed to look please let me know.) Did anybody else see this material on Yahoo! China and MSN China, or have a sense of how long it was there?

I wouldn't be surprised if the local editors just automatically ran it because everybody else in China was running it, then got over-ridden by management in the U.S. who realized how badly this would play outside of China... Such is the disconnect between China and the West on the Tibet issue.

Interesting note: France24 Observers is run by the former head of Reporters Without Borders' Internet desk, Julien Pain. Here is a video of him describing the project.

Online Free Expression Day

Rsf Demopng

Reporters Without Borders is holding a 24-hour protest against Internet censorship today. You can click here to create and avatar and banner and join virtual protests against Internet repression in Burma, China, North Korea, Cuba, Egypt, Eritrea, Tunisia, Turkmenistan and Vietnam. RSF has also released an updated version of their Handbook for Bloggers and Cyber-dissidents, and issued a new list of "Internet Enemies" (Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam - I'm not sure why some of them aren't included in the online protest.)

Access DeniedWhile the countries named by RSF may have jailed the most people for Internet writing and may be blocking the most websites, they are not the only countries of concern when it comes to Internet censorship by any means. The Open Net Initiative has found systematic Internet filtering in 25 countries and in their new book, Access Denied. Researchers point out that the practice is spreading fast. We can expect the list to grow.

In the past couple of years countries that call themselves democracies have gotten into the Internet censorship game. Turkey censors Wordpress. Thailand censors extensively. Japan has been considering strict "regulation of online content" which is essentially censorship by another name. The U.S. airforce reportedly blocks all URL's with the word "blog" in them. And then of course abuse of surveillance powers is by no means limited to non-democracies. The U.S. certainly has a growing surveillance problem.

The point is, it's a bit misleading to divide up the world into "good" and "bad" countries. Some are certainly a lot worse than others, but we are all living along a continuum. No government can be trusted. They all have the potential to overstep their powers and censor content that adult citizens have a right to see, or to disrespect our rights to privacy, without serious oversight and vigilance by all of us. Ideology and nationalism get mixed up in global free speech discussions in very counter-productive ways. We need to find a way for people who truly care about free speech (as opposed to those who use free speech advocacy as a cover for other agendas) to transcend nationalism and ideology, discard defensiveness or sanctimoniousness, and work together for solutions so that we can ALL protect ourselves against abuse and manipulation.

I'd like to use this occasion to introduce a number of useful resources for anybody interested getting around censorship or protecting their privacy online.

Dig-Sec-Badge This excellent guide to digital security and privacy written by Dmitri Vitalev of Frontline Defenders is labeled "for human rights defenders," but it's equally useful for journalists working anywhere that you need to protect yourself and your sources from reprisals by powerful people who don't want you doing stories about bad things they've done. Which is really any country on earth, pretty much. For more useful guides from FrontLine click here.

Global Voices Advocacy Global Voices Advocacy (the activist arm of Global Voices which I co-founded) has published several useful resources, with plans for more. So far they are:

CitizenlabFrom the Citizenlab in Toronto we have Everyone's guide to By-Passing Internet Censorship for Citizen's Worldwide.

Not long after I started teaching online journalism I realized I had to put together a resource page for my students (half of whom are mainland Chinese) on censorship circumvention and e-mail security. It's tailored towards their particular needs but anybody is welcome to use it here.

Last week, in response to an appeal by Jerry Yang, Condoleezza Rice raised the cases of Wang Xiaoning and Shi Tao with Chinese authorities on her visit to Beijing. A Chinese version of Jerry Yang's letter to Rice is circulating around the internet. It's unclear whether Rice's intervention will result in an early release for the two men. But in the past, getting one's case raised by the U.S. Secretary of State has tended to boost a person's chances of early release. The Chinese have also agreed to resume a stalled human rights dialogue. This is no doubt tied to concerns about international criticisms in the run-up to the Olympics.

Another development that surfaced in the English-language media on Thursday and Friday this past week is a new lawsuit against Yahoo!. It was filed on February 21st in San Francisco by two men, Guo Quan, a Nanjing-based scholar and acting chairman of the underground New People's Party, and Zheng Cunzhu, head of the Western U.S. branch of the Democratic Party of China.

They are suing Yahoo! for a couple of reasons. Guo Quan says that Yahoo! China has removed his name from their search results without any legally valid reasons, after Guo published an open letter calling for political reform. Zheng Cunzhu claims that he cannot return to China for fear of arrest - because Yahoo!'s handover of e-mail records to the police also implicated him - and as a result has lost property.

According to Zheng who gave a press conference in Los Angeles on the 21st, the previous lawsuit against Yahoo! resulted in a secret settlement with the relatives of Wang Xiaoning and Shi Tao. However that lawsuit, Zheng says, claimed to include over 60 people who had been harmed by Yahoo!'s disclosure of personal e-mail information to Chinese authorities. These people included China Democratic Party Li Zhi, who is now serving an 8-year sentence. See Zheng's open letter to Jerry Yang in Chinese for more details about the reasons behind the lawsuit. For more Chinese-language reports on the lawsuit click here, here, and here.

Note that some of the English-language reports about this case have gotten facts wrong. A Computerworld story picked up by the Washington post erroneously reports that Guo Quan's part in the lawsuit relates to the handover of e-mail records. However the more detailed Chinese reports on the case make it clear that he is suing because search results about him were removed, and that this has an adverse impact on his business. Businessweek got the story right - also pointing out that Li Zhi (doing 8 years in prison thanks at least in part to a Yahoo! e-mail handover) is not a plaintiff, while the Computerworld story (amplified by the Washington Post) says Li Zhi is a plaintiff. Ars Technica has a more well-informed and detailed version of the story which are consistent with the Chinese reports I've seen - plus some decent analysis.

A few more useful bits of information not included in English reports about this lawsuit:

First, about Li Zhi: Li Zhi's case is more complicated than Wang Xiaoning's and Shi Tao's. Li Zhi wasn't convicted on evidence supplied by Yahoo! alone. In addition to Yahoo!, the Chinese e-mail service SINA also handed over e-mail records that were used as evidence against Li. This subtlety and a few other details were glossed over in the initial reports and press releases in 2006 about Li Zhi's case, leading Roland Soong to question the extent to which journalists and human rights activists care about facts. (In my response to Roland at the time, I agreed people messed up, but didn't think that meant Yahoo! was off the hook.)

About Guo Quan: One thing that the English reports over the past few days haven't mentioned is that Guo Quan recently announced the founding of the Chinese Netizens' Party. In January he launched the New People's Party, which caused him to lose his teaching job. He is a historian known for his work on the Nanjing Massacre. Jane Macartney interviewed him for a Times of London story in early February. At the time he was threatening to sue Google in addition to Yahoo! for removing his name from search results on Google.cn. However, Google soon resolved the problem and you now get results when you do a search on his name - though any dissident overseas websites mentioning his name don't appear in those results while they do appear in a Google.com search. Meanwhile, as of this writing you still get nothing when you search Guo Quan's name on Yahoo! China. Ironically, even Baidu does actually return results.

Back when Jerry Yang first made his appeal to Rice on behalf of Shi Tao and Wang Xiaoning, Elinor Mills wrote on CNet:

Yahoo wasn't necessarily any worse than Google or Microsoft; Yahoo was just the first to have been publicly caught in the moral quagmire that U.S. companies face when dealing with repressive governments. It's unfortunate that several men were arrested and thrown behind bars before Yahoo changed its mind.

Actually, that's wrong. Yahoo was much worse. Neither Google nor Microsoft set up local Chinese-language e-mail services with the user data sitting on computer servers inside the People's Republic of China, under PRC legal jurisdiction. Gmail and Hotmail data are not subject to Chinese police order the way Yahoo! Chinese e-mail is. Google and Microsoft have said in public statements that the reason why they're not doing e-mail in China is to avoid being complicit in sending dissidents to jail. Also, as I found out when doing test searches for Human Rights Watch in 2006, Yahoo! Chinese search censors much more heavily than Google and MSN - and as we can see from the Guo Quan case, sometimes they even censor more heavily than Baidu!

For fun, here's the screenshot of the search I just did on Yahoo China with Guo Quan's name (click to enlarge):

Yahoo!, the Shi Tao case, and lessons for corporate social responsibility

Ir2008logo Human Rights in China has launched a new campaign for the new year titled "Incorporating Responsibility 2008." Each month they're focusing on the case of a different person "who has been imprisoned for exercising his or her human rights."

First up is Shi Tao, whose case I've been following rather closely for a while. HRIC provides an succinct summary of his case for bloggers to use:

Shi Tao (b.1968), a journalist, headed the news division at the Dangdai Shangbao (Contemporary Business News) in Changsha, Hunan Province prior to his arrest. On April 20, 2004, Shi attended a staff meeting where a Chinese Communist Party Central Propaganda Bureau document about security and preparation for the fifteenth anniversary of the June 4 crackdown was discussed. That evening, Shi reportedly used his personal Yahoo! e-mail account to send notes about this meeting to the New York-based website, Democracy Forum. Shi was detained on November 24, 2004. On April 27, 2005, he was sentenced to ten years in prison for illegally providing state secrets overseas. He is currently held at Deshan Prison and is due for release in 2014. For more information, please see http://www.ir2008.org.

Shitaobanner3 Also see the World Association of Newspapers' "Free Shi Tao" campaign. WAN is calling on all its members to "exert serious pressure" on Beijing in the run-up to the Olympics to hold the Chinese government "to its promises of reform." The association passed a resolution in November. Here is an excerpt:

The WAN Board believes the end of 'business as usual' in China is necessary to effect belated and needed reform, and it encourages all partners in the Games, and all companies doing business with China, to speak out about China's human rights abuses," said the resolution, part of a global campaign by WAN to draw attention to Chinese press abuses and help free jailed journalists in the run-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

By all accounts, the Beijing Games are shaping up to be a showcase for China. But these events should not be allowed to take place without active opposition by participants -- the IOC, athletes, sponsors, media partners and others -- to the repressive conditions that surround the Games. Turning a blind eye to these violations of human rights would be a scandal.

HRIC is calling on concerned members of the public to take action on Shi Tao's case by writing blog posts and letters to Chinese authorities making the following points:

  • Calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Shi Tao and others imprisoned for exercising their right to freedom of expression;
  • Urging ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), guaranteeing the right to freedom of expression;
  • Calling for the implementation and fulfillment of the right to freedom of expression, including by installing greater protections for members of the press; and
  • Urging the provision of immediate and appropriate medical treatment for Shi Tao's deteriorating health; and treatment of Shi and all other prisoners in a manner consistent with the People's Republic of China (PRC) Prison Law and numerous international standards.

Last month I gave an presentation titled "Shi Tao, Yahoo!, and the lessons for corporate social responsibility" at the International Conference on Information Technology and Social Responsibility held at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

The presentation is based on a long paper - which is actually a modified draft book chapter. A revised version of it can be downloaded here (PDF 523.4K).

The paper attempts to document somewhat definitively all the main developments and issues surrounding the Shi Tao case, Yahoo!'s role in it, the impact that the case has had on the global debate over corporate social responsibility, and explores questions about where we go from here. It's still very much a draft, so I welcome comments, corrections, and criticisms.

My main argument is that the Shi Tao case highlights the complex challenges of corporate social responsibility for Internet and telecommunications companies: They are caught between demands of governments on one hand and rights of users on the other – not only in authoritarian countries such as China but in virtually all countries around the world. While Yahoo! may have been legally "off the hook" as far as Chinese and perhaps even U.S. law was concerned, it is not off the hook in the court of global public opinion. Moral imperatives aside, the Shi Tao case proves that Internet and telecoms companies seeking to establish trustworthy reputations across a global customer base cannot afford to ignore the human rights implications of their business practices. Customers and investors need to leverage this reality and demand that user rights be respected. I conclude that if we cannot count on the private sector to respect user rights, the need to develop non-commercial, grassroots alternatives will become all the more critical.

I've been so busy talking to journalists about this in between helping my students cover Hong Kong's district council elections, I haven't had a chance to write about the news that Yahoo! has settled the lawsuit against them by relatives of Shi Tao and Wang Xiaoning, two of the dissidents sitting in jail thanks in part to Yahoo!'s cooperation with the Chinese authorities. I won't repeat all the facts that everybody is reporting. Just a few quick thoughts.

Yahoo! has definitely evolved over the past two years since Shi Tao was sentenced. They started out on the defensive, with statements that sounded as if they believed that Shi Tao, dissident Wang Xiaoning and at least two other people were acceptable collateral damage in the noble effort to bring the Internet to China. After being featured as number one negative example on the cover of at least two human rights reports, yelled at in congress twice, a victims' lawsuit, and countless anti-Yahoo campaigns by free speech and human rights groups, they are finally doing what many have been advising them to do for some time: admit that their actions have helped to ruin human lives, and admit that they made mistakes. It is unfortunate that it has taken two years for their executives to meet with the family members of Shi Tao and Wang Xiaoning, offer to help them financially and legally, commit to helping them get out of jail, and commit to serious efforts to prevent such situations from happening again. Yahoo! spent two years digging themselves into a hole of mistrust and lost good will which one settlement alone won't fill in. But it's definitely a start.

I hope Yahoo! and all Internet companies have learned something from this: that they've got to think through the privacy and human rights implications of their international business decisions before they launch new services in any market. Or they will pay later. And there will be broader implications for global free speech and the future of global information flows. The Internet could get so balkanized as a result of short-term business decisions that it loses much of its long-term value.

Here are a few comments of note that I've seen around the web:

Bobbie Johnson writes in the Guardian's Comment is free:

The suppression of online information is fast becoming a crucial political question, with China now the world's second largest country on the internet population, and expected to overtake America within just a few years.

As a result of such growth and success, Beijing is now setting the standard for dozens of countries around the world who are following suit and heavily censoring the internet - Saudi Arabia, Iran, Vietnam, Syria, and (as we saw recently) Burma.

What happens to the web when its most powerful group of users live under a regime that keeps them blinkered?

Somebody needs to take a stand. But if Silicon Valley's finest are happy to pocket profits from repression, and China's internet elite are unable or unwilling to help, who will fight for us?

Peter Navarro points out in the Baltimore Sun that singling out Yahoo! may miss the point given how many U.S. companies contribute to censorship and surveillance in China and elsewhere:

... it is ultimately shortsighted to single out Yahoo for the kind of behavior now common to many big U.S. companies operating in China. That's why we need to have a much bigger discussion about how to engage economically and politically with China. It's also why the proposed Global Online Freedom Act, which would make it unlawful for U.S. companies to filter Internet search results or turn over user information, should not be viewed as a magic bullet but rather as the start of that debate.

Vindu Goel writes:

But Congress was hardly in a position to cast stones at Yahoo. Our lawmakers have systematically undermined Americans’ civil rights over the past few years. Thanks to the laws passed in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Bush Administration can pretty much ask for — and get — any information it wants on anybody. It can hold people without charges. And it can use torture techniques such as waterboarding with impunity.

If Congress really cares about protecting people’s Internet privacy, how about stopping AT&T and other phone companies from turning over Americans’ phone and Internet records without a court order?

The AT&T case is far more egregious than the Yahoo one: essentially, the phone giant gave the National Security Agency a giant wiretap on all U.S. Internet traffic — no explanation or justification required. Backed by the Bush administration, AT&T and other phone companies now want Congress to immunize them against private lawsuits for aiding and abetting the government’s illegal snooping.

So far, our lawmakers are showing every sign of rolling over once again.

That’s the real travesty here. Civil rights begin at home.

We face a global problem. Yahoo! isn't the only problem company and the Chinese government isn't the only problem government. We need a global corporate code of conduct and global solutions.

November 12, 2007

My Web2.0 Week in Beijing

The photo at left was taken by tech blogger Keso on Friday night at the opening evening of China Foo Camp, held in an old military factory compound in Eastern Beijing (with Maoist slogans still on the ceilings) which has recently been converted into an array of trendy-arty spaces.

Tim O'Reilly's first foray into China was my third Web2.0-related conference in Beijing in the span of one week. Which says something about how much is going on here. It's really great to see O'Reilly and his team finally getting serious about China and making a serious effort to engage with the Chinese tech community. Naturally they will need some time to sort out who are the best people to work with in China, and how best to nurture greater dialogue and cross-fertilization between the English-speaking web world and the Chinese-speaking web world. But with the Chinese-language Internet soon to become the largest part of the global Internet, we badly need more bridges, more collaboration, more dialogue, and better understanding. The O'Reilly brand is one of many non-governmental, non-political platforms that can potentially help bridge these two worlds in ways that I hope will help the global internet evolve in a healthy and open direction that should be in the interest of the world's people - not just the world's most powerful governments.

On Saturday many attendees, especially those of us who had been at the Chinese Blogger Con the previous weekend, were surprised by the 1.0-ness of the the main Saturday conference. Don't get me wrong, the local IBM team - who the O'Reilly folks chose as their local partner for this event - worked extremely hard, spent a shocking amount of money (or so people were claiming on Twitter), and deserve a lot of points for effort. They just seem to be more accustomed to interfacing with other big companies, government ministries, and state-owned enterprises than with the open source community, independent entrepreneurs, digital culture people, and techie grassroots. Still, the gathering brought a lot of interesting people together, a lot of great conversations were had and connections were made that may not otherwise have happened - which is apparently the main point of Foo camps anyway.

Another thing that the conference showed was just how hard it is to hold a truly bilingual English-Chinese conference in which the Chinese and English speakers feel equally comfortable participating. Despite the hiring of interpreters and setup of a simultaneous translation booth with headsets for people to listen to translations in the main hall, non-English speakers still reported feeling like they weren't able to participate fully or understand fully what was going on, and many left early. As some people pointed out, it's not just about language - it's also about communication style, and whether you set up a gathering to favor people who are comfortable communicating in an American way or in a Chinese way. So if the O'Reilly conferences intend to be a successful bridge between the two worlds they will definitely need to pioneer new models for English-Chinese bicultural interactive meetings.

MONDAY MORNING UPDATE: Stephen Walli, who was invited but couldn't attend, posted a video and summary of the lightning talk he would have given. He summarizes his main points as follows:

  • Free and open source software is important to China's future growth. (开放代码软件对中国未来的发展很重要)
  • It will allow China to deliver better software faster.
  • It will allow China to build better companies more quickly.

BUT ...

  • Language defines culture. (语言创造文化)
  • Our community cultures are different, and we need to understand each other's cultures to build the relationships to allow us to build a bigger community.


Earlier in the week I attended another Web2.0 conference organized by France Telecom's Orange Labs. Orange Labs is obviously a different kind of business than O'Reilly but they're not doing a bad job at burrowing themselves into the local web community. A number of bloggers have praised the way they helped organize Beijing Barcamp, saying it was better and more interactive than Foo. I don't know because I wasn't there. This week's conference was a bit more corporate/academic and less grassroots than CNBloggercon, but it still brought together some interesting people. I griped a bit about some speakers who seemed to equate human beings with dollar signs a bit more than I can tolerate, but interesting things came up. A few highlights:

  • Isaac Mao gave a talk about how people are using Web2.0 and "micro-content" to create a living "social brain" which grows smarter over time as we contribute to and interact with it. He has some blog posts related to these ideas here (Chinese) and here (English); also see a couple of his recent presentations on Slideshare here and here.
  • Tangos Chan of China Web2.0 Review had some interesting perspectives on Chinese Web2.0 innovations to keep an eye on (i.e., going beyond copying American models): A growing number of Chinese Internet users, especially newcomers to the Chinese Internet, prefer to do as much of their online business in their chat client, and thus chat clients - as well as applications that feed content into both your chat client as well as into your mobile SMS mailbox - are an interesting thing to watch. Two variations on that theme are Anothr and Jiwai.
  • Benjamin Joffe of Plus Eight Star who works closely with Orange Labs gave a very useful overview of Web2.0 and "information arbitrage" across Japan, Korea, and China.
  • Orange's Nicholas DuCray described his research on "how community services and web 2.0 applications converge with the traditional media and mobile industry to offer a new generation of interactive services." The difficulty in measuring audiences in China also makes it hard to "monetize" traffic and grow businesses. Nonetheless, as he wrote in his talk summary: "We have had the opportunity to observe significant changes in behaviors, and the appearance of a new generation of internet users, whose primary objective is to communicate with their peers, express and showcase themselves, by any means. This need for interactivity, enabled and catalyzed by the economic growth and the development of the internet and mobile markets, has created a "hot pot" of convergent services, which could possibly draw the image of what the telecom services and the business models of the future could be."
  • He wasn't the only one to emphasize mobile. Which I guess isn't surprising since he works for Orange/France Telecom, but then again, it's a fact that increasingly Chinese people will be interacting with the web via mobile devices and not via PC.
  • A number of speakers pointed out that regulation and control on content, combined with lack of open API's are both obstacles to innovation.
  • I was also fascinated by a presentation by Luo Qing of the Communication University of China (and former TV personality) in which she explained how user-generated audio-visual content is regulated increasingly via the State Administration of Radio Film and Television (SARFT). She described a process of web-driven media transformation
  • Yao Yonghe of 51.com (a social networking site popular in smaller towns but which more urbane geeks seem to turn their nose up at) reminded us all that compared to 10 years ago, white collar elites are no longer the majority of Internet users in China and thus the tastes and needs of more rural, less globally-connected Chinese will increasingly be driving the market.

Having gone over my notes from that conference, I am reminded of Tim O'Reilly's remarks at Foo Camp about future trends. He predicted we will see a slowdown in what people would define as "Web2.0 innovation" as the big players consolidate. Meanwhile, "innovation will break out in some very unexpected places." Despite the fact that he expects this innovation to be unexpected, he pointed to some possible directions he thinks this innovation might come from. They include what he calls "open mobile...a kind of ambient computing where we break out of PC computing completely." The next phase of computing, he believes "is re-engaging with the physical world." This could happen in China in an interesting way, and perhaps differently than in the West.

Meanwhile, I wonder: is the next phase of the Internet going to make the world even flatter or will we see the geographical, cultural, political, and linguistic boundaries getting stronger? Will we start seeing substantially different media forms and communication norms emerging in different countries depending on their economic, cultural, political, and linguistic conditions? Possibly. We're certainly finding that the big multinational Internet players are struggling to capture the Chinese market, and while politics and regulatory hurdles don't help, perhaps we're also getting to a point where one-size-fits all is increasingly untenable and homegrown services will increasingly have an edge over transplants. But as co-founder of Global Voices and a strong - perhaps overly idealistic - believer in the need for a freer, more open conversation amongst the citizens of our entire planet, I also hope that the developers and engineers of the world will continue to work hard to make a global conversation possible.

I started this post talking about the urgent need to build better bridges of conversation and collaboration between the Chinese language Internet and the English language internet. Which brings me back to the Chinese blogger conference and Zhang Lei, founder of Yeeyan, a peer-translation community website. I am so excited about what Yeeyan is trying to do that I'm happy to plug it. The idea is to "crowdsource" the translation of articles and blog posts back and forth between English and Chinese so that people who don't read both languages can gain better insight into the ideas coming from each community. (It's kind of a for-profit cousin to what the Global Voices Lingua projects are doing: recruiting volunteers to translate Global Voices English-language content into a variety of languages.) So far Yeeyan has been doing well with English-to-Chinese but have had less success getting people to translate from Chinese to English. I hope they find a way to make it work. Maybe the folks behind the Chinese Content Project, which generated a great deal of enthusiasm at the beginning of this year before it ran out of steam and kind of died, may be interested in trying out Yeeyan's community translation framework to see if it can support a more sustainable peer-translation model.

Finally, for those who missed the Chinese Blogger Conference and/or who might not have understood much of the Chinese-language proceedings anyway, you can get a feeling for the community by watching some of the videos that participants have uploaded to YouTube:

...and here's the video shown at the start of the conference, showing highlights from the past two conferences:

logizes ahead of Congressional grilling

The Financial Times and Dow Jones report that Yahoo! is now apologizing for not telling the full truth to Congress at the February 2006 hearing where Yahoo! was taken to task for its role in the conviction of Chinese journalist Shi Tao. However Yahoo! insists that they did not intentionally misinform Congress: Rather, senior Yahoo! executives who can't read Chinese were badly briefed by local employees who do read Chinese.

Yahoo! CEO Jerry Yang and senior VP and general counsel Michael Callahan have been ordered back to Capitol Hill next week to explain themselves. In advance of what is sure to be a rough day for Yahoo! on the Hill, Callahan is talking to journalists about Yahoo!'s perspective on the whole situation.

Callahan says that in February 2006 he was not aware that the Chinese-language police order requesting Shi Tao's account information had specified that it was a "state secrets" case. In his February 2006 testimony Callahan told Congress that Yahoo! had "no information" about the nature of the case. In July the Dui Hua Foundation, a human rights organization, released a full English translation of the original police order citing "illegal provision of state secrets to foreign entities" as the "crime" being investigated. This revelation triggered congressman Tom Lantos to order a congressional investigation of the situation, followed by his conclusion that "Yahoo provided false information to Congress in early 2006." While Yahoo! says that they hadn't intentionally provided false information in February 2006, executives in Sunnyvale did discover in October last year that the Yahoo! Beijing office actually did have more information about Shi Tao's case than Callahan had earlier claimed. But Yahoo! executives did not broadcast this realization or seek to correct their testimony. As Dow Jones reports:

Yahoo said that Callahan found out about this fact in October 2006, but that he forgot to inform the committee.

"I neglected to directly alert the Committee of this new information and that oversight led to a misunderstanding that I deeply regret and have apologized to the Committee for creating," said Callahan in the statement.

It said that a Hong Kong-based lawyer for the company made the decision at the time not to pass the specific information about the Chinese government's request to executives at Yahoo's Sunnyvale, Calif., headquarters.

A spokeswoman refused to name the lawyer, but said he was still with the company.


Last month I speculated that something like this might have happened. Based on my own observations over the years about the relationship between the local China offices of multinational companies and their headquarters back in the U.S., it's not uncommon for crucial pieces of information to get lost between local employees and headquarters - thanks to language barriers and different cultural perspectives on what is or isn't important, among other reasons. It's a wise move on Yahoo!'s part to stop being defensive and admit to being human.

I'd also like to share something that somebody recently pointed out to me. If we had been reading the Hong Kong Privacy Commissioner's report on the Shi Tao case a little more carefully when it came out in March, we would have paid more attention to this paragraph on pages 17-18:

"6.11 Yahoo! China was not made aware of the exact nature or details of the investigation by SSB [State Security Bureau], but the Order from SSB stated that it was in respect of a criminal investigation into "illegal disclosure of state secrets overseas."
(Click here for the full PDF report.)

Thus, information about the inaccuracy of Callahan's congressional testimony has actually been out in public, in English, since March. It's just that pretty much everybody - except Yahoo! executives and the Hong Kong privacy commissioner's office of course - seems to have overlooked it. Myself included.

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