Yahoo may face liability in dissident lawsuit, experts say

For the second time, plaintiffs use Alien Tort Claims Act to accuse Internet company

Yahoo and at least one of its subsidiaries could be held liable for actions that resulted in the jailing and torture of at least one Chinese dissident, according to experts.

Yahoo and its subsidiary have been sued by three Chinese dissidents who allege that the company helped Chinese authorities by handing over e-mails and other electronic communications that ended up landing one dissident in jail.

Yahoo operated its China subsidiary until it became part of Alibaba.com in return for a 40 per cent stake in the Chinese e-commerce company in late 2005. Alibaba now runs Yahoo's China operations.

The case was filed by plaintiffs Li Zhi, Zheng Cunzhu and Guo Quan and other unnamed individuals a week ago in US District Court. The lawsuit alleges that Yahoo "willingly provided Chinese officials with access to private e-mail records and other identifying information about the plaintiffs," which led to the 2003 arrest of Li Zhi.

The information was used as "the basis for the acts of persecution and torture that occurred and are occurring," according to the court documents.

The group has filed suit under the Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789. Last year, Yahoo faced a similar lawsuit by Chinese journalists Wang Xiaoning and Shi Tao, who were jailed after they said Yahoo gave Chinese authorities their e-mail records. Yahoo settled out of court for an undisclosed amount. That case also cited the Alien Tort Claims Act.

"As a general policy, we do not comment on pending litigation," Yahoo spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said. "Yahoo condemns unfair government restrictions on free expression and privacy. We are a company founded on the principle that the free exchange of information can fundamentally change how people lead their lives, communicate, and learn about the world around them," Schmaler said.

"We are committed to making sure our actions match our values around the world which is why we've established a Human Rights Fund with noted human rights advocate Harry Wu to provide humanitarian and legal aid to dissidents who have been imprisoned for expressing their views online."

In part, the act provides for making US corporations responsible in court for human rights abuses committed as a result of their presence in a foreign country, said Bridget Arimond, clinical assistant professor of law and director of the Program for International Human Rights at Northwestern University. It doesn't matter whether those abuses were committed by the US company or by a local group that was abetted by the US corporation, Arimond said.

"Non-US nationals, aliens, can bring claims under the Alien Claims Tort Act, for violations of certain norms of international human rights law including torture," Arimond said. "So you can bring a claim against the perpetrators of the crime and also although this is currently being litigated in the courts virtually all courts have found that you can bring claims against those who aid and abet the actual torture. In this case [the plaintiffs] are saying Yahoo is liable for cooperating with the Chinese authorities who actually conducted the torture."

Arimond said any corporation sued under the act should look carefully at its own conduct, and if there are grounds for believing there is liability, settlement is both the prudent and the right thing to do.

Robert Goldman, a professor at the American University Washington College of Law, and co-director of the college's Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, said torture would meet the statutes under the act.

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