By Michael Rau
November 19, 2007
Two stories that emerged in the news over the past couple of weeks should have the hair on the back of every American's neck standing on end. But I fear the complacency we've demonstrated over the past few years toward protecting our personal freedom will allow this too to slip through the cracks.
The first was the revelation about how Yahoo had turned over the names of Chinese dissidents to that country's government, resulting in their imprisonment and torture.
Would Yahoo have turned in suspected Jews to the Nazis in exchange for a sweet business deal? Intellectuals to the Stalinists? American patriots to the British? Maybe they would have contributed a list of liberals to Joe McCarthy's blacklisting campaign.
You can say that's absurd, but just where will they draw the line in pursuit of the almighty dollar (or in this case, the yuan)?
Rep. Tom Lantos, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was quoted as saying to Yahoo company officials: "While technologically and financially you are giants, morally you are pygmies," during congressional hearings a couple of weeks ago.
Since the hearings, Yahoo announced that they've reached an undisclosed financial settlement with the families of the jailed dissidents, and promised not to do that anymore. Big deal.
If you search for Yahoo in news headlines, you'll discover about 10 times more stories about all the business Yahoo is doing with China than about their transgressions. After all making money is so much more important than protection of human rights.
So dissidents are jailed, their executives get a tongue lashing, and Yahoo continues to make billions in China.
You gotta love the blindness of justice.
From their flagrant disregard for human rights to their collection and dissemination of personal information without permission using Web beacons on their sites, Yahoo has proved itself to be the most craven example of corporate mentality to emerge from the so-called 'dot com' era, and are worthy of no one's business.
The second story is equally disturbing and much closer to home.
A former AT&T technician named Mark Klein made a highly-credible claim a couple of years ago that his company had gone above and beyond in helping the Federal government tap into private traffic on the Internet even going so far as to create a special dedicated infrastructure to aid and abet the government in doing so.
This becomes particularly scary in light of the fact that the Senate and House Judiciary Committees are pushing for legislation that would grant immunity from legal action to telecommunications companies that have participated in this behavior.
Well, if our elected officials are looking out for those who are helping them spy on us, who the heck's looking out for our interests?
In this case, it's our friends at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who've been trying for years now to pry this information out into the light of day, thus exposing just how casually our elected officials treat the basic civil liberties we used to cherish.
Verizon has also been caught helping the government spy on us, but to learn that a company went so far as to create a highly sophisticated infrastructure to enhance this ability is really disgusting.
Klein and the EFF have been lobbying against the effort to indemnify the telecoms, but sadly, it seems likely they'll fail. We'll probably never know the degree to which our personal privacy has been violated. And with the sorry state of our electoral system, I don't see any scenario where our elected officials will become advocates for their constituents anytime soon.
So do you care enough to try to put a stop to this? If so, I actually have a couple of suggestions.
First off, you can make a conscious choice NOT to do any business with these companies (sorry, iPhone users).
Sooner or later, some savvy Internet portal company is going to set itself apart by pledging upfront to vigorously protect the identities of its patrons. Likewise, a telecom could step forward with such a pledge.
The first companies to take this stand will attract a phenomenal number of patrons who worry about their privacy, as well as the rights of others. In the same way many investors are only trading in companies that demonstrate social consciousness, so can it be with companies like these.
Social consciousness is not a fad it's a way of life. I choose to only do business with companies that demonstrate similar concerns about rights and freedoms to my own. I urge you to do the same and use the free market to force responsible behavior within the corporate environment.
The other thing you can do is to support the Electronic Frontier Foundation (www.eff.org). They're the ones standing up against this grossly un-American behavior, and they deserve your support.
In addition, EFF suggests visiting the Web site of an organization called 'As You Sow' (asyousow.org) which tracks social responsibility in corporate America. You can make the difference. Don't let these robber barons turn the technology you love against you.
Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, go to http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.
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