Thursday, June 19, 2008

Yahoo facing up to human rights in China?

It's been a heady time for business and human rights recently what with the UN Special Representative, John Ruggie's final report having just been released to general mumurings of support.

His approach of "protect, respect and remedy" makes a lot of sense as an organizing framework, and whilst it falls short of the kind of normative principles and binding regulations that some critics were hoping for, his focus on providing some much needed clarity on what it means for businesses to manage human rights responsibilities is one that we are happy to see. The message that companies do have responsibilities in this arena, and distinct ones from government at that, provides an important mark in the sand in terms of identifying some of the political responsibilities of corporations.

All this is good timing for news to emerge about Yahoo's response to the government censorship issue in China that hit the headlines a few years ago (and that we wrote about in our Business Ethics text). Of course, Yahoo has been mainly drawing attention recently in respect to its battles with Microsoft about their abortive takeover. But the good people at Ethical Corporation recently reported on developments in the censorship issue that have been overshadowed somewhat by all the takeover speculation.

It turns out that following a dressing down by the US authorities, and a lawsuit from the World Organisation for Human Rights (which was eventually settled out of court), Yahoo has made some efforts to enage in what Ruggie would call the "remedy" component of business and human rights - such as paying legal bills for imprisioned Yahoo customers, setting up a fund to support human rights, and lobbying the US government to press for the release of political dissidents imprisioned by the Chinese authorities as a result of Yahoo's release of user information.

Of course, all this does not detract from the continuing responsibility the company should have for protecting the human rights of its stakeholders in the first place. But at least it does show that firms can play a role in pressing for human rights at a political level. This is in marked contrast to the Olympics sponsors, all of which have resolutely refused to discuss the possibility of any political response to events in Tibet. As the Adidas CEO recently said, pressure to issue a statement on human rights in China was an "effort to drag us into politics, and we will not allow that to happen".

Why the difference? Well the main point here is that Yahoo's involvement in human rights comes from people actually using its products - something that, in the parlance of global governance, falls directly within their "sphere of influence". The Olympics sponsors, however, are more removed from the issue, and so can realistically make a case for having rather less influence. After all, people are not going to be arrested for wearing Adidas sneakers. Such assessments though are, of course, a somewhat inexact science. However, these are some of the major issues that UN, Yahoo, Adidas and others concerned with business and human rights will have to grapple with in the years to come.

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