In a case considered by many to be the first of its kind, the World Organization for Human Rights USA announced Thursday that it has filed a lawsuit against Yahoo and its subsidiaries for what it calls the Internet giant’s complicity in human rights abuses and acts of torture in China.
Plaintiffs in the case, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California under the Alien Tort Statute and the Torture Victim Protection Act, include Wang Xiaoning, who is serving a 10-year sentence in China, his San Francisco-based wife, Yu Ling, and other yet-to-be-named dissidents.
Wang Xiaoning was arrested in 2002 after he used Yahoo sites to distribute articles calling for democratic reform in China. He says he was beaten while imprisoned, and argues that Yahoo provided information to Chinese officials that linked him with the articles, ultimately leading to his arrest and torture.
Just Following Orders?
Plaintiffs in the case are seeking damages and assistance in obtaining their release from prison, as well as an injunction preventing Yahoo from doing the same thing again to other dissidents in the future.
“We have not had time to review and analyze the lawsuit being filed today, and so it is premature for us to comment on the specifics of this case,” Yahoo said, but it did add that “companies doing business in China must comply with Chinese law.”
Although the company said “we believe deeply in human rights,” and is “distressed that citizens in China have been imprisoned for expressing their political views on the Internet,” it called on the U.S. Department of State to help obtain the dissidents’ freedom.
‘Way Off Base’
“I think the most important point to note is how Yahoo has reacted,” Morton Sklar, executive director for the World Organization for Human Rights USA, told TechNewsWorld. “They’re way off base in terms of their approach.”
Whereas Yahoo has essentially argued that they were simply obeying Chinese law when they gave up dissidents’ information, it’s by no means that clear, Sklar said. “They did have a choice — they had a wide range of alternatives,” he said.
Because Yahoo had complete access to the communications involved, it must have known that they were about political issues and human rights, not terrorism or pedophilia, Sklar added.
Noting too that Yahoo was discussed in nine of the 14 pages of Wang Xiaoning’s sentencing documents by the Chinese government, and so was deeply involved, “They can’t absolve themselves by saying, ‘we just did what we were told, and played a minimal role,'” Sklar said. “That defense went out the window after World War II. We now recognize that corporations that aided in the Holocaust were accountable, and it’s the same for Yahoo.”
Freedom Through Technology?
“This an industry whose rallying cry is that their technology and services set expression free globally, and in fact, they are actively participating in helping limit freedom of expression, including cases that end up sending people to jail,” Sophie Richardson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, told TechNewsWorld.
“We are not aware of their ever having made a serious attempt to challenge whatever laws were supposedly being forced upon them,” Richardson said. “If they were genuinely concerned and want to be seen as leaders rather than tools of a repressive government, they need to be pushing boundaries, not capitulating when they don’t even have to. They can’t have it both ways.”
Moving forward, companies like Yahoo need to be more alert to the potential uses of information they’re asked to provide, and to be more proactive in seeking the assistance and expertise of government and human rights officials when they’re not sure what’s the right course of action, Sklar said. “The Internet is so capable of providing intimate details about people, and companies are not fully comprehending that or dealing with it well.”
Need for Awareness
General policies need to be set for these kinds of situations, he said, and employees should be trained to be aware of the differing ways information can be used in different countries, along with their implications. “These are new issues for many people,” he explained.
“Yahoo needs to be doing all they can both to inform users about what constraints they’re up against, and to insist that requests for information be made through a legal process that can be challenged,” Richardson added. “They need to think maximally about privacy.”
Whichever way the current case is decided, “it’s clear that U.S. companies and especially Yahoo are going to have to recognize that there’s a big issue here,” Sklar concluded. “They can’t just throw it away the way Yahoo has, saying it’s not their responsibility. Clearly it is, and they have to come to grips with it.”
Nevertheless, whether the courts agree remains to be seen.
“It’s unreasonable to assume any single company can move against a government,” Rob Enderle, president and principal analyst at Enderle Group, told TechNewsWorld.
“I think the court’s going to have difficulty finding against Yahoo for obeying what in that geographical area of the world is a legitimate government request,” he said. “That would be holding the company to an impossible standard.”