What was particularly astonishing to me was that after all these efforts, the fund still remains incredibly obscure. The total amount in the fund ($17.3 million) was only revealed eight years after it was established, in a 2016 investigation by Foreign Policy; it’s unclear how much of that is left; and it’s not even publicly known which or how many Chinese dissidents YHRF helped. For a fund that was set up for a bona fide humanitarian purpose, its operations certainly deserve more scrutiny.
Of all the lawsuits that have tried to hold Yahoo and the people who managed the fund accountable, the current case has gotten the furthest, Eileen says. It may finally go to trial next year, six years after it was initially filed; in that process, more relevant information could finally be unveiled to the public. (Yahoo’s chief communications officer, Sona Moon, told Eileen that the lawsuit “does not allege any claims for human rights abuses by Yahoo,” adding: “The case is wholly unrelated to Yahoo’s current business or ownership. We take seriously our duty to respect and uphold human rights everywhere we operate.”)
For the plaintiffs, who say they were denied the assistance they believe they were owed, this lawsuit could bring some much-needed closure. But it also matters to everyone else, including those who never had a Yahoo account or even remember the site’s heyday.
Even though the company is almost irrelevant in the tech industry today, the mess it created provides an important lesson on how difficult it is for tech companies to fix the damage they all too frequently cause.
When Yahoo announced the humanitarian fund back in 2008, it was applauded as an example of a tech company taking responsibility and adhering to its values. “It changed a lot of different narratives about Yahoo almost immediately. Yahoo was lauded as a leader of human rights,” Eileen says.
The way it has unraveled since, though, shows that a good gesture is not enough. “One of the takeaways for me is that it’s really easy for a tech company to make amends through very successful crisis communications and public relations strategy. But our collective memory is short,” Eileen says. “But it shouldn’t be, because the results of something like this last, in some cases, for the rest of people’s lives.”