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My Yahoo! Years, Part 5: Branding Faux Pas or Branded as Moral Pygmies

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Yahoo! was created by Jerry Yang and David Filo while they were studying at Stanford University and began as “Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web.” In the spring of 1994, it was renamed Yahoo!, and by 1995, it was incorporated.

According to Wikipedia, they selected the name because it came from Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” and meant rude, unsophisticated and uncouth. This hardly sounds like a good choice for a consumer product.

As a brand name, what does Yahoo! stand for? Unlike Google, Yahoo! has a landing page that offers news, weather and other things like information on movies. While the landing page for other countries is similar, the offerings are not the same. Yahoo! for America and Japan have extensive information on their movie Web sites. Go to France or Mexico and you’ll see a marked difference.

On the Yahoo! landing page for France if you look up Maurice Chevalier, you’ll find a brief paragraph:

Chanteur, "Valentine" (1928)… "Prosper" (1935)… "Ma pomme" (1936)… "Ah ! si vous connaissiez ma poule" (1938)… Si le cinéma français l'a beaucoup boudé, les producteurs américains ont élus le gars de Ménilmuche "The French Lover"…

If you try the U.S. version, you’ll find much more in the way of a biography. Besides that, there is information about awards.

Yahoo! in Mexico and Argentina do not currently have a movie sections where you can look up information. They do have an entertainment section with a movie subsection.

Yahoo! Mexico has an English entry for Carlos Saura’s Goya in Bordeau and oddly, it is in English.

Set in the early 1800s, a tale told in flashbacks by an 82-year-old Spanish artist Francisco Goya, living in exile with the last of his lovers, Leocadia Zorilla de Weiss, and reconstructs the main events of his life for this daughter Rosario. One by one the mysteries surrounding the artist's life are unraveled to unveil the dreams and demons that drove him into exile and are so passionately displayed in his life works.

There is no searchable movie database for the Yahoo! Argentina Web site.

Yahoo!’s U.S. movie Web site has the following on the Goya movie:

Set in the early 1800s, a tale told in flashbacks by an 82-year-old Spanish artist Francisco Goya, living in exile with the last of his lovers, Leocadia Zorilla de Weiss, and reconstructs the main events of his life for this daughter Rosario. One by one the mysteries surrounding the artist's life are unraveled to unveil the dreams and demons that drove him into exile and are so passionately displayed in his life works.

How odd that a Spanish Web site should have the very same paragraph as the U.S. Web site and both in English. The American Web site, however, has a long biography of the Spanish director.

The question becomes one of what does Yahoo! as a brand stand for? How is it serving its customers? Carlos Saura’s 1998 movie Tango was nominated for a foreign film Academy Award. It featured Julio Bocca and Juan Carlos Copes, both well-known Argentine dancers and choreographers. Yet this Spanish film and its director, also known for this flamenco trilogy, is given more space in English on the U.S. site than on the Spanish sites, including the one starring two famous luminaries of Argentina on the Argentine Web site?

While Yahoo! continues to buy new services and properties, it doesn’t seem to care about the quality of the things it already has such as the movie Web sites.

As a news portal, Yahoo! has done much worse.

Yahoo! assisted the Chinese government by giving information that helped identify Wang Xiaoning, an engineer and dissident who had been posting anonymous writings to an Internet mailing list. Wang was arrested in September of 2002. Yahoo! did not immediately come clean and was soundly criticized by a congressional panel, the House Foreign Relations Committee. According to Wired, other writers such as Shi Tao, Li Zhi and Jiang Lijun were imprisoned because of Yahoo! turning over sensitive information.

According to a San Francisco paper, Yahoo!, Google and Microsoft were questioned about their actions in China.

In February 2006, the Republican-controlled House held a seven-hour hearing in which executives from Google, Microsoft, Cisco Systems and Yahoo! were grilled about their compliance with censorship laws in China and elsewhere. At the time, Callahan testified that when Yahoo! turned over information about Shi to Chinese authorities, "We had no information about the nature of the investigation."

The statement turned out to be false. Documents unearthed by the San Francisco-based Dui Hua Foundation showed that Yahoo! China officials had received a subpoena-like document on April 22, 2004, from the Beijing State Security Bureau that stated, "Your office is in possession of items relating to a case of suspected illegal provision of state secrets to foreign entities." China has often cracked down on dissidents by accusing them of leaking state secrets.

Yahoo! protested that the mistake after the fact, admitting that its failure was not to contact Congress to correct the error. Yet lawmakers were angry not only because they weren’t notified, but also because no one at Yahoo! has been fired or demoted for its handling of the case.

"You think that sends the right message to your employees?" Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach (Orange County), asked sarcastically.Rohrabacher might be furious if he read Jerry Yang’s account given on the Yahoo! employee intranet.

In his defense, Yang, who was born in Taiwan and came to the U.S. as a child said,

"We continue to believe in engagement in markets like China," Yang said. "Why? Today, despite broad limitations on sensitive political subjects, Chinese citizens know more than ever before about local public health issues, environmental causes, politics, corruption, consumer choice, job opportunities and even some foreign affairs."

Unfortunately, this is not how members of Congress saw it:

But most lawmakers complained that Yahoo! appeared more focused on making money in China – with more than 150 million Internet users – than boosting the freedoms of its people. Smith compared Yahoo! to companies who helped the Nazis accelerate their campaign to exterminate Jews in Europe.

Also in November 2007, Yahoo! settled a lawsuit brought by the two Chinese journalists who had been jailed, but the terms of the deal were not disclosed.

In the Associated Press article, “The company has denied any responsibility and maintained it had been complying with Chinese law when it turned over the e-mail.”

Some good did come of this hearing. In April, Republican congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey brought the Global Online Freedom bill before Congress.

The bill was supported by Reporters Without Borders and Amnesty International and has been criticized by Electronic Frontier Foundation. This bill attempts to prevent American Internet companies from participating in the censorship schemes of foreign countries.

Smith stated, "The gross mistake of allowing China to host the Olympics in light of its horrific human rights record will be significantly compounded if we do not speak up and call attention to the human rights heroes who languish in Chinese jails."

According to Forbes, Yahoo! was one of the lobbyists for this bill.

Is this an about face? Not according to the San Francisco paper’s article.

In 2005, Yahoo! sold its interest in Yahoo! China to the Chinese Internet giant, Alibaba. But Yahoo! still has a 40 percent stake in Alibaba and Yang holds one of four seats on the parent company's board. Critics say the arrangement allows Yahoo! to wash its hands of responsibility when China cracks down on Internet users. Yang acknowledged he has little say in enforcement issues.

In the autumn of 2007, the San Francisco Gate article wrote the following: "While technologically and financially you are giants, morally you are pygmies," House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos, D-San Mateo, said at the end of the three-hour hearing.

In 2008, I wonder: Has anything really changed?

Has Yahoo! lived up to the image of rude, uncouth and unsophisticated? Far worse, Yahoo! has been compared to Nazi Germany and been called moral pygmies and no one took umbrage.

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