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Advocates Sue Yahoo In Chinese Torture Case

In a suit against Yahoo, the wife of a Chinese pro-democracy writer says the Internet giant offered data that helped authorities identify and arrest her husband and others.
In a suit against Yahoo, the wife of a Chinese pro-democracy writer says the Internet giant offered data that helped authorities identify and arrest her husband and others. (By Ng Han Guan -- Associated Press)

"The Yahoo company didn't even say 'sorry,' " she said. "They think they haven't done anything wrong."

There were hopes in China that President Hu Jintao would loosen strict controls over the flow of information, but the opposite has happened. The Internet is heavily censored. Across the country, Internet cafes are being shuttered. Last month, Caijing, a business magazine, was pulled off newsstands because it contained information about a sensitive private-property law.

Yahoo isn't the only American technology company that has made compromises to operate in China. Cisco has supplied routers that allow the government to divert Internet traffic away from references to the Tiananmen Square massacre. Microsoft's blog service has filtered words such as democracy, and Google's search engine has blocked sites flagged by the government.

In recent years, activists working with overseas plaintiffs have sued roughly two dozen businesses under the Alien Tort Claims Act, which the activists say grants jurisdiction to American courts over acts abroad that violate international norms. Written by the Founding Fathers in 1789 for a different purpose, the law was rarely invoked until the 1980s.

In 2004, Unocal, an energy company, paid an undisclosed sum to settle a suit that accused it of complicity in human rights abuses during construction of a gas pipeline in Burma. Several U.S. companies are being targeted for activities under the old apartheid regime in South Africa.

"The law says you can't just close your eyes" and claim you didn't know what might happen, said Beth Stephens, a professor at Rutgers University who specializes in human rights law. "You're negligent if you should have known."

U.S. companies have called such suits a threat to their ability to do business abroad.

The courts have not set a standard on how involved in abuses a corporation has to be before it can be found liable. The State and Justice departments under the Bush administration have argued for a narrow standard of liability, Stephens said, contending that a broad interpretation "endangers our economic relations with foreign countries."

Hurst Hannum, a professor of law at Hong Kong University, said such suits also put companies in the position of being accused of complicity even when their connection to the abuses is tenuous.

"One way to look at it is to imagine that this was the United States and the request was of Yahoo [for the name] of a terrorist suspect who was using the Internet," he said. "What would Yahoo be expected to do? I think they would be expected to comply."

Even so, others contend, what Yahoo did violates human rights.

"There's a concern that media companies in China are sacrificing free-press issues to benefit the business end of their companies," said Doreen Weisenhaus, director of the Media Law Project at the University of Hong Kong.


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