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High-technology companies are walking one of the thinnest lines in global commerce as they attempt to do business in closed or repressive societies. They deal in information and communications products that can give the user access to a wealth of knowledge accumulated and disseminated from literally millions of sources.

But in order to conduct that business in the global marketplace, they must first come to terms with some governments that don't want their citizens to have access to knowledge and ideas that may threaten the controls of that government.

That's the problem Yahoo! executives described as members of the U.S. Congress assailed the company's business practices at a public hearing held in early November 2007.

Yahoo! co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Jerry Yang expressed the dilemma this way: "I also know that governments around the world have imprisoned people for simply speaking their minds online. That runs counter to all my personal and professional beliefs."

A week later, Yahoo! agreed to pay an undisclosed amount to settle a lawsuit claiming that the company bore some responsibility for the imprisonment of Chinese journalists for their activity on the Internet.

Shi Tao and Wang Xianoning, both serving 10-year sentences, were jailed after Yahoo! complied with a Chinese government order and supplied information that the government used to link the journalists to dissident activities on the Internet. This action is what drew the outrage of some U.S. lawmakers and nongovernmental organizations.

With the lawsuit settlement, Yahoo! will provide financial support to the families of the imprisoned and will create a humanitarian relief fund to support other political dissidents and their families.

"After meeting with the families, it was clear to me what we had to do to make this right for them, for Yahoo!, and for the future," Yang said in a statement quoted in news reports. "Yahoo! was founded on the idea that the free exchange of information can fundamentally change how people lead their lives, conduct their business, and interact with their governments. We are committed to making sure our actions match our values around the world."

Yang expanded on the company's effort in this regard at the congressional hearing, describing Yahoo!'s involvement in a human rights dialogue among industry representatives, academics, investors, and human rights and other nongovernmental organizations.

"This diverse group has made a public commitment to creating a set of global principles and operating procedures on freedom of expression and privacy to guide company behavior when faced with laws, regulations, and policies that interfere with human rights," according to Yang's congressional testimony.

The Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), a Washington-based nongovernmental organization, is facilitating the development of that code of conduct. A CDT spokesperson says it is hoped that this set of principles will be completed in the first few months of 2008.



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