The World Organization for Human Rights USA has filed a lawsuit (PDF) against Internet giant Yahoo in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California on behalf of Yu Ling, wife of jailed Chinese dissident Wang Xiazoning. Wang was arrested by Chinese authorities in September, 2002, in part on the basis of email records and other information willingly turned over by Yahoo. In July, 2003, Wang was charged with “incitement to subvert state power,” and in September, 2003, sentenced to ten years in prison and two additional years of deprivation of political rights. The suit alleges Wang has been subjected to abuse at the hands of Chinese prison officials; his wife, Ling, currently lives in San Francisco.
The suit seeks general, compensatory, and punitive damages under the Alien Tort Claims Act and the Torture Victims, two U.S. laws under which American companies have been sued for allegedly aiding or being complicit in human rights abuses in other countries.
The case highlights issues faced by U.S. Internet companies doing business in China; China already represents one of the world’s largest populations of Internet users, which cannot be ignored by major Internet firms. At the same time, by doing business in China, U.S. companies feel they must comply with local authorities and laws—an in the case of China, that may mean turning over information on users and their activities to an authoritarian regime which operates the world’s largest Internet censorship operations. Chinese authorities are under no obligation to disclose the nature of their investigation when they seek information from Internet firms; for all Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, and other companies know, Chinese authorities may be investigating a murder, not seeking to identify a pro-democracy blogger.
Yahoo has repeatedly been criticized for turning information over to Chinese authorities; according to Reporters Without Borders, the disclosures have lead to the detention of several Chinese bloggers, journalists, and dissidents. Amnesty International has charged Internet firms doing business in China with violating human rights by assisting China’s censorship regime.
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