WASHINGTON -- U.S. Internet giant Yahoo Inc. and its chief executive, Jerry Yang, were pilloried yesterday by a congressional committee for the company's role in the jailing of a Chinese journalist and for misleading lawmakers last year about what it knew about the case.
At a hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Yang, who emigrated from Taiwan as a child, bowed in apology to the weeping mother of the imprisoned Chinese journalist, Shi Tao.
The controversy over Yahoo's role in Chinese police investigations could lead to restrictions on the information U.S. companies are allowed to provide to totalitarian governments.
The Foreign Affairs Committee in October passed the Global Online Freedom Act, which calls for fines of up to $2 million for disclosing information that identifies a particular Internet user to a foreign government except for legitimate law-enforcement purposes.
Yahoo provided Shi's name to Chinese authorities in 2004 after they demanded to know the owner of a Yahoo e-mail address that had forwarded a government memo to an international human-rights group. The memo had forbidden news coverage of the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Shi was sentenced to 10 years in prison for divulging what China had deemed a state secret.
Shi's mother, Gao Qinsheng, and Yu Ling, the wife of another Chinese dissident who was jailed allegedly with Yahoo's help, sat directly behind Yang at the hearing, along with former human-rights activist Harry Wu.
"I deeply regret the consequences of what the Chinese government has done to the dissidents," Yang said. "My heart goes out to the family."
Michael J. Callahan, Yahoo's executive vice president and general counsel, then apologized to the committee for inaccurate statements he made during a 2006 hearing.
He said then that the company had no idea why the Chinese government was seeking the owner of the e-mail address. But a police document made public by a human-rights group last fall shows that Yahoo knew the Shi Tao case involved divulging state secrets.
Callahan also apologized for not contacting the committee and correcting his statements once he learned of the police memo, although he insisted that Yahoo was not trying to hide the information.
The apology wasn't enough for committee chairman Rep. Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor in Congress and an ardent anti-communist. Although he said he was not accusing Callahan of perjury for his sworn 2006 testimony, Lantos assailed him for providing false information to Congress on a vital human-rights issue.
"While technologically and financially you are giants, morally you are Pygmies," Lantos, a California Democrat, told Yang and Callahan.
Republican Rep. Christopher H. Smith of New Jersey 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 there was no concrete answer.
Yang and Callahan defended the company, saying doing business in China is complex. But Yang said the company would work harder on human-rights issues.
Jim Puzzanghera writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.