Yahoo may face liability in dissident lawsuit, experts say

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.

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

"If torture is what the [plaintiffs] are claiming, torture is clearly going to survive under the statute," he said. "It is one of the few things in customary international law of human rights that is recognized to be absolutely prohibited."

Goldman noted that the previous case brought by Chinese dissidents was an embarrassment for Yahoo. "Rather than litigate these cases, corporations have settled, and you can imagine ventilating this in court," he said. "Yahoo was not the torturer here, but the plaintiffs seem to be saying if Yahoo hadn't done this they wouldn't be in this position, therefore Yahoo bears some derivative responsibility. Let's face it, this is bad publicity for Yahoo. It's better for them to settle."

Morton Sklar, executive director of the World Organization for Human Rights USA, which filed the first lawsuit against Yahoo on behalf of Wang and Shi, said the current case is similar.

"We were aware that many other Internet users in China were subjected to human rights abuses as a direct result of Yahoo's disclosure of their Internet-identifying information to the government of China, and assume that this new case concerns them," Sklar said. "Yahoo had promised to provide the House Foreign Affairs Committee at the hearing on 6 November with information on these additional people detained as a result of their disclosures. But they have not yet provided this information. Hopefully, this new lawsuit will help to identify many others who were imprisoned as a result of Yahoo's disclosures."

Tala Dowlatshahi, spokeswoman for Reporters Without Borders, said that when Yahoo settled last year with Shi's family, the company was recognizing its participation in indirectly contributing to the jailing of a journalist by providing information to Chinese police about his email.

"With that step, Yahoo is saying to other Chinese dissidents and bloggers that may have also been harassed jailed or threatened by the Chinese government that the door is open for other investigations that may link Yahoo to once again indirectly contributing to clamping down on the journalists' rights and prohibiting a journalist from speaking independently," Dowlatshahi said.

Dowlatshahi said US-based companies that are created under a "corporate template of democracy" like Yahoo are bending their rules when working in other countries.

"And that simply isn't acceptable to our organization or to international human rights organisations at the global level," she said. "What we're calling for is the implementation of a code of conduct that we're currently working on with the shareholders of these companies to apply a universal standard toward Internet accessibility and information exchange so that there is a principled order and not a bending of the rules."

She said her organisation is hoping that these cases create more awareness of the issue worldwide. "What the Yahoo settlement did last year is that it showed that these companies are willing to accept that they may have indirectly contributed to the jailing of Shi Tao and perhaps others," she said.

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