Why Yahoo should reconsider...
The World Organization for Human Rights USA has just filed a federal lawsuit against Yahoo over the company's decision to release dissident e-mails to the Chinese government. Alleging that Yahoo's actions were directly responsible for Wang Xiaoning's detention, abuse, and current 10-year prison sentence, the group claims that Yahoo is liable under both the Alien Tort Statue and the Torture Victim Protection Act.
Wang Xiaoning's "crime" was to publish, for several years, two electronic journals that advocated a multiparty political system and increased democratic reform in China. His Free Forum of Political Reform and his Commentaries on Current Political Affairs were published using Yahoo Groups and e-mail from 2000-2002.
In September 2002, 10 police officers raided his home and took him into custody. He spent the next two years in the Detention Center of the Beijing State Security Bureau, where he was damaged physically and emotionally. According to the complaint, "when his wife was finally able to see him approximately six months after his arbitrary and unlawful detention, Wang was very weak, showed no emotional expression, and exhibited severe respiratory difficulties."
In 2003, based in large part on e-mails turned over by Yahoo, Wang was sentenced to 10 years in prison by the Beijing Municipal First Intermediary People's Court on charges of "incitement to subvert state power." In its decision, the court quoted such subversive material as: "without the multiparty system, free elections and separation of powers, all types of political reform will come to nothing."
Wang is currently serving his sentence in Beijing Municipal No. 2 Prison, a forced labor prison where he shares a cell with nine other inmates and, according to the complaint, is denied "any access to recreation or even sunlight for weeks and even months at a time, even though the standard at the prison is to allow prisoners outside once a day."
His wife, Yu Ling, "cannot eat or sleep due to the emotional distress caused by her husband's absence," and due to the strong element of shame in having one's husband thrown into jail, she did not even reveal what happened to her immediate family. When Yu's mother died and Wang could not attend the funeral, Yu's siblings accused him of being a heartless man, and Yu had to finally confess what had happened.
Just following orders
As for Yahoo's responsibility, the World Organization for Human Rights says that the company "knowingly and willfully aided and abetted in the commission of torture and other major abuses violating international law" by turning over the messages. They point out that in 2002, Yahoo signed a voluntary industry agreement called the "Public Pledge on Self-Discipline for the Chinese Internet Industry"—a pledge that basically agreed to help the government censor anything that might "disrupt social stability."
This pledge, while voluntary, was important for Yahoo to sign on to in order to avoid trouble in China. The company was warned in a 2002 letter from Human Rights Watch that signing the Public Pledge put Yahoo at risk for assisting with human rights violations. Amnesty International also pointed out in a 2002 report that the Pledge could force Yahoo to be a party to "violations of international human rights norms."
Yahoo claims that it is simply following local law and that it has no choice but to comply with legal requests from the Chinese government if it wants to keep doing business in that country. Yahoo has actually turned over dissident e-mails on several occasions, and the company's actions have attracted scrutiny from groups like Amnesty International and the US Congress.