Two top Yahoo Inc. officials on Tuesday defended their company's role in the jailing of a Chinese journalist but ran into withering congressional criticism over information Yahoo gave the Chinese government about the man's online activities.
"Yahoo claims that this is just one big misunderstanding. Let me be clear — this was no misunderstanding," House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos, D-Calif., said as his panel's hearing got under way. "This was inexcusably negligent behavior at best, and deliberately deceptive behavior at worst."
He angrily urged Yahoo Chief Executive Jerry Yang and General Counsel Michael Callahan to apologize to journalist Shi Tao's mother, who was sitting directly behind them.
Shi Tao was sent to jail for 10 years for engaging in pro-democracy efforts deemed subversive after Yahoo turned over information about his online activities requested by the communist government.
Yang and Callahan turned around from the witness table and bowed from their seats to Shi's mother, Gao Qinsheng, who bowed in return and then began to weep.
In written testimony Yang contended that Yahoo "has been open and forthcoming with this committee at every step of this investigative process" — a contention Lantos rejected.
The committee is investigating statements Callahan made at a congressional hearing early last year.
He said at the time that Yahoo had no information about the nature of the Chinese government's investigation of Shi when the company shared information with the authorities about Shi's online activities.
Callahan has since acknowledged 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 February 2006 testimony, and that he regretted not alerting the committee to it once he knew about it.
He reiterated that regret in written testimony Tuesday and contended that Yahoo employees in China had little choice but to comply with the government's demands.
"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.
Callahan also said that even if he'd known of the reference to state secrets his testimony still would have been fundamentally accurate, because the Chinese government's order to Yahoo didn't reveal any details about the investigation or that it was related to political activities.
Lantos disputed Yahoo's position.
"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," Lantos said.
Human rights and free-speech advocates have lambasted U.S. companies including Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp. for helping the Chinese government stifle the flow of ideas in exchange for greater access to the country's rapidly growing Internet market. But the convictions of Shi and another Chinese journalist Yahoo provided information about have focused the most strident criticism on Yahoo.