By Catherine Rampell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Yahoo settled yesterday with the families of two Chinese dissidents imprisoned after the company helped identify them to the Chinese government. The terms of the settlement are not being disclosed and Yahoo is not admitting fault, an attorney for the families said.
The announcement came a week after members of Congress criticized Yahoo executives for not assisting the families of Shi Tao and Wang Xiaoning. The men were sentenced to 10-year prison terms for crimes against the state after Yahoo gave their e-mail records to Chinese officials. Their families sued Yahoo last April in U.S. District Court in Northern California.
"The pressures by Congress on [Yahoo chief executive] Jerry Yang were of tremendous importance to making this settlement happen," said Morton H. Sklar, executive director of the World Organization for Human Rights USA, which represents the Chinese families. He said a recent court decision requiring Yahoo to disclose information about its operations in China probably sped up the settlement, as did Yahoo's interest in being seen as a company that promotes human rights.
Yahoo said in a written statement that the company would start a fund "to provide humanitarian and legal aid to dissidents who have been imprisoned for expressing their views online."
In 2002, Wang, an engineer, was detained by Chinese officials for writing pro-democracy articles on a Yahoo Groups Web site. Shi, a journalist, was arrested in 2004 after he forwarded an e-mail directing him not to cover the Tiananmen Square anniversary to an overseas Web site.
Yahoo was asked to testify about its cooperation with Chinese officials in the arrests of the men at a House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing in February 2006. At the time, Michael J. Callahan, the company's general counsel, denied that Yahoo had any information about the nature of the case against Shi. Callahan and Yang were called back to testify last week because the subpoena-like demand Yahoo received for information about Shi specifically said that he was being investigated for a state-secrets violation, a charge frequently made against dissidents.
At last week's hearing, Yang apologized to relatives of the prisoners, who were sitting behind him. He later met with the families privately.
Yahoo "admitted this is wrong and would not happen again," said Laogai Research Foundation executive director Harry Wu, who translated for the families during their visit to the United States. Wu said the families were returning to China but that the two imprisoned dissidents were not yet aware of the settlement.
Human rights advocates said other companies operating in China are likely to tread more carefully because of Yahoo's experience. "I think Cisco, Microsoft and Google are probably taking careful notes," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.
Some lawmakers hope to prohibit U.S. companies from giving information about their customers to foreign governments. The bill proposed by Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), the Global Online Freedom Act, would forbid sharing such information without permission from the Justice Department.
"Convening a congressional hearing every time a U.S. company helps put a human rights activist in jail should not be their only means of securing justice," Smith said. "For that reason, today's settlement underscores a million times over why it is important to give the families of victims like Shi Tao standing in U.S. courts. The Global Online Freedom Act will ensure that right."