Time for the web pioneers to pick sides

Yahoo has been sending men up mountains. Last week, the portal - which claims to be the world's biggest, with a user base of more than 345 million - unveiled its latest journalistic enterprise, Richard Bangs Adventures.

The five-part multimedia package is produced by the eponymous adventurer, who is following mountaineer John Harlin on an expedition up the same peak that killed his father 40 years ago.

It's a marvellously well-formed piece of multi- media journalism, and gives the kind of all-encompassing coverage that only the combination of video, audio and text provides. It's the kind of experience that can only be delivered through a complex channel such as the web.

It goes without saying that this appropriation of other media by and for the Internet is not new. Yahoo is only alone in pushing forward in multiple areas. The portal recently announced that it was hiring former CNN and NBC correspondent Kevin Sites to work for it. Sites - who came to prominence writing a weblog of his journeys in Iraq - is travelling to every war zone in the world in a year. His exploits will be tracked through the website Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone (hotzone.yahoo.com).

The idea that Yahoo is interested in making news, not just repackaging it, should come as no surprise. After all, it is now a vast media empire. But while it's all very well sending reporters on "dangerous" missions into the unknown, elsewhere the commitment to independent journalism doesn't seem so secure.

One man who would tell you all about it - if he was allowed to - is Chinese writer Shi Tao. Imprisoned earlier this year for "leaking state secrets" through his contributions to a pro-democracy website, Tao's biggest crime was using a Yahoo email account. The Chinese authorities demanded information from Yahoo; the company handed over its data; Tao was arrested and then sentenced to 10 years in prison.

At the time, Yahoo cofounder Jerry Yang said his company had no other option but to comply with local laws. It hasn't always fallen in line with law enforcement so readily, though. Several years ago, there was a tooth-and-nail fight against banning sales of Nazi memorabilia through Yahoo's website. The sale of hatred-inciting materials is illegal in France, but the company argued that freedom of speech out-ranked any provincial legislation.

Yahoo eventually lost that battle, which perhaps goes some way to explain its pliability in Tao's case. But this is a wider conflict faced by an entire industry. Internet firms across the board are eyeing up China as a potential outlet - and Google, Microsoft and a host of others are already in on the gold rush. If taking a slice of this pie means cooperating with repressive authorities, then they're willing to take the risk.

What jars here is not so much that these companies are behaving like multinational corporates, but that they are betraying the principles they have built their business on. For years, the Internet's pioneers have spun us the rhetoric of revolution: the web, they said, is about communication, information and freedom. Now we discover there's a limit to everything.

While web companies want the kudos of being associated with popular and independent voices, they simultaneously undermine commitments to privacy and free speech. Gonzo assignments might rack up a few extra stamps on your passport, but would Yahoo be so willing to acquiesce if the Chinese authorities tried to imprison one of its own reporters?

In terms of the Internet's mayfly attention span, Shi Tao's story is old news. But we all live in the real world, where real decisions have real consequences - and even if we forget this injustice, he will remain imprisoned for a decade. One man tackling a mountain may be a good story, but there are other more important obstacles still left to surmount.

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