By Ariana Eunjung Cha and Sam Diaz
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 19, 2007
SHANGHAI, April 18 -- A human rights group sued Yahoo on Wednesday, accusing the Internet giant of abetting the torture of pro-democracy writers by releasing data that allowed China's government to identify them.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, says the company was complicit in the arrests of 57-year-old Wang Xiaoning and other Chinese Internet activists. The suit is the latest development in a campaign by advocacy groups to spotlight the conduct of U.S. companies in China.
As they seek a slice of the booming Chinese market, Yahoo and other American companies have sometimes set aside core American values, such as free speech, to comply with the communist government's laws.
The suit, in trying to hold Yahoo accountable, could become an important test case. Advocacy groups are seeking to use a 217-year-old U.S. law to punish corporations for human rights violations abroad, an effort the Bush administration has opposed.
In 2003, Wang began serving a 10-year sentence on charges that he incited subversion with online treatises criticizing the government. He is named as a plaintiff in the Yahoo suit, which was filed with help from the World Organization for Human Rights USA, based in Washington.
Yahoo is guilty of "an act of corporate irresponsibility," said Morton Sklar, executive director of the group. "Yahoo had reason to know that if they provided China with identification information that those individuals would be arrested."
Wang's wife, Yu Ling, said her husband is imprisoned in a labor camp and has been subjected to beatings. In an interview in Washington, she said through an interpreter that American technology companies such as Yahoo should be held to a high standard in their overseas conduct. She said Yahoo gave the Chinese government personal information tied to e-mail accounts that Wang used to distribute his writings,
The suit says that in 2001, Wang was using a Yahoo e-mail account to post anonymous writings to an Internet mailing list. The suit alleges that Yahoo, under pressure from the Chinese government, blocked that account. Wang set up a new account via Yahoo and began sending material again; the suit alleges that Yahoo gave the government information that allowed it to identify and arrest Wang in September 2002. The suit says prosecutors in the Chinese courts cited Yahoo's cooperation.
Jim Cullinan, a spokesman for Yahoo, of Sunnyvale, Calif., said he could not comment on the suit or the specifics of Wang's case because he had not seen the papers Wednesday afternoon. But he said Yahoo condemns the suppression of speech.
Companies that do business in other countries have to follow the laws of that country or their employees could be subject to penalties, he said. In addition, governments are not required to tell a company why they want information.
"No company would know if it is for a legitimate criminal investigation, or if it's a matter of public safety, or it's being used to prosecute political dissidents," Cullinan said.
Yahoo's stance infuriates Yu, Wang's wife.
"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.
Wang and his wife are the only plaintiffs named in the suit, though others may be added later. While offering few specifics, the suit claims Yahoo may have turned over information on as many as 60 people who were subsequently arrested for pro-democracy activism. Among the cases that have come to light are those of writers Shi Tao, Li Zhi and Jiang Lijun.
Shi, a business journalist, was arrested in 2004 after he used his Yahoo e-mail account to distribute a Communist Party document to an overseas pro-democracy Web site. Li, from southwestern China, was sentenced to prison in 2003 after he posted comments on the Internet criticizing official corruption. Jiang, a freelance writer, was detained in 2002 and sent to prison in 2003 after he published an open letter to the party calling for democratic reform.
Wang, born in the rust-belt capital of Shenyang in China's northeast, was an engineer who moonlighted as a political commentator, churning out dozens of newsletters and journals over more than 15 years. "Outwardly democratic but inwardly despotic" was how Wang described China's government in one essay.
The police raided his home Sept. 1, 2002, confiscating files, notes, an address book and two personal computers, according to Wang's wife, Yu. Wang was ultimately convicted of "incitement to subvert state power."
Yu said visits with her husband are limited to one 30-minute session a month. In the earliest visits, before he was sentenced and transferred to prison, she could tell he had been abused, she said.
"They beat him, they kicked him, to get his confession, to tell them more, not just about himself but others in his group," she said.
In China, Yu said, news organizations don't dare tell his story. And no lawyer there would take her case. With her husband's blessing, she traveled to the United States in search of justice. "Even when it is extremely difficult, you shall still do it for me," Wang wrote to her in a letter last year.
Traveling to the United States, filing suit against a big company and speaking out against her government is risky for Yu, 55, whose eyes show that she's not well rested and whose frame seems to indicate that she doesn't eat much. Although she does not think she has committed a crime by speaking out, "you never know in China whether they have a reason or not to take you away."
Yu said she wouldn't be surprised to find police waiting for her when she returns to China.
Diaz reported from Washington.