Two top Yahoo officials on Tuesday defended their company's role in the jailing of a Chinese journalist but ran into withering criticism from US lawmakers who accused them of complicity with an oppressive communist regime.
"While technologically and financially you are giants, morally you are pygmies," House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos said angrily after hearing from the two Yahoo executives.
Lantos, a California Democrat, angrily urged Yahoo chief executive Jerry Yang (楊致遠) and general counsel Michael Callahan to apologize to journalist Shi Tao's (師濤) mother, who was sitting directly behind them.
Shi Tao was jailed for 10 years for engaging in pro-democracy efforts deemed subversive after Yahoo turned over information about his online activities requested by Chinese authorities.
Yang and Callahan turned around from the witness table and bowed from their seats to Shi's mother, Gao Qinsheng (
Yang contended that Yahoo "has been open and forthcoming with this committee at every step of this investigative process" -- a contention Lantos and other committee members rejected.
The committee is investigating statements Callahan made at a congressional hearing early last year.
Callahan said at the time that the Sunnyvale, California, Internet giant had no information about the nature of the Chinese government's investigation of Shi when the company turned over information about him.
Callahan has since admitted that Yahoo officials had received a subpoena-like document that made reference to suspected "illegal provision of state secrets" -- a common charge against political dissidents.
Last week Callahan issued a statement saying that he learned the details of the document months after his testimony in February last year, and that he regretted not alerting the committee to it once he knew about it.
He reiterated that regret on Tuesday.
"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 overbroad," Callahan said.
Lantos rejected that argument.
"I do not believe that America's best and brightest companies should be playing integral roles in China's notorious and brutal political repression apparatus," he said.
Republican Congressman Chris Smith compared Yahoo's cooperation with the Chinese government to companies that cooperated with Nazi Germany during World War II.
Lawmakers demanded to know what Yahoo would do to help Shi's family and reacted with derision when neither Yang nor Callahan provided a concrete answer.
Callahan also could not say whether there were outstanding demands for information from the Chinese government to Yahoo, or whether Yahoo would react the same way today to a demand for information from the Chinese government as it did several years ago when the authorities wanted information about Shi.
In 2005 Yahoo bought a 40 percent stake in China's biggest online commerce company, Alibaba.com, which has taken over running Yahoo's China operations. Callahan said it was up to Alibaba officials how to respond to the Chinese government's demands.
Smith dismissed that explanation as "plausible deniability."
Callahan did say that in going into future markets such as Vietnam, Yahoo would aim to find a way to avoid turning over information to the government on online activities.