Today Yahoo became the first Internet company to be sued in the United States for human rights violations in China. Yu Ling, the wife of a Chinese dissident, has brought an action in a federal District court in San Francisco accusing Yahoo of giving up her husband's name to the communist authorities.
According to Yu, on Sept. 1, 2002, 10 local security police officers arrived at her Bejing home to arrest her husband, Wang Xiazoning.
Wang had been the editor of several online publications on political reform in China, which he sent anonymously to an e-mail list. For this, said Yu, her husband was charged with "incitement to subvert state power" and other similar charges. Wang was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years in prison. When Yu looked at the court papers from her husband's sentencing, she discovered who had revealed the writer of those publications to authorities.
"All the different pages has Yahoo written all over the place," Yu said, speaking through a translator. "It's very prevalent to me that Yahoo is the culprit."
Now that her husband is in prison, Yu doesn't see him very often. But he's told her of being beaten and tortured. She recalls the first time she saw him after his imprisonment.
"He looked emaciated, weak, and he kept coughing nonstop," she said. "He had no expression whatsoever. He was seeing through me."
Yu is now in San Francisco, a plaintiff in a lawsuit against Yahoo. Morton Sklar, one of her attorneys and the executive director of The World Organization for Human Rights USA, believes that what happened to Wang requires a response.
"Corporations acting that way — facilitating, aiding and abetting the commission of these kinds of atrocities — should be held accountable for that," Sklar said.
Sklar said U.S. corporations can be held accountable for their actions abroad under the Alien Tort Claims Act and the Torture Victims Protection Act. He said the Supreme Court affirmed that in a decision in 2004.
"The Supreme Court said that torture is a special quality, a special nature," he said. "They made clear that torture is something that needs to be looked at by the U.S. courts."
While Yahoo's actions in China may be troubling, not all attorneys are so sure that an American corporation doing business abroad can be held accountable in a U.S. court. Deidre Mulligan, a professor at the Boalt Hall Law School at the University of California, said this is an unsettled area of the law.
"This is not a case where they are going to say, 'OK, well we can easily apply X,' and get to the outcome that's being sought by the litigants in this case," she said.
There have been dozens of cases brought against corporations under the Alien Tort Claims Act, Mulligan points out, and she explains that this case could set an important precedent. Tech companies Google and Microsoft have also been criticized for cooperating with Chinese authorities in order to do business there. Human rights groups say Wang Xiaozoning is one of four dissidents jailed because of Yahoo.
Officials at Yahoo express regret about what happened to Wang. Jim Cullinan, a company spokesperson, said that for all Yahoo knew, authorities in China wanted information to track a murderer.
"They are not required to inform service providers for the reasons why they are seeking certain user information or the nature of the criminal investigation," Cullinan said.
When the lawsuit has been filed, Yu Ling said, she will return to China, where she does not know what fate awaits her.