The wife of an imprisoned Chinese dissident has sued Yahoo Inc. for divulging information about her husband's Internet activity, which allegedly led to his arrest and torture.
The suit was filed by the World Organization for Human Rights USA on behalf of Yu Ling, the wife of Wang Xiazoning, said Monique Beadle, refugee project director for the organization. Wang was arrested in September 2002 on charges including "incitement to subvert state power."
Ling is seeking damages under the Alien Tort Claims Act and the Torture Victims Protection Act, two statutes under which U.S. companies have been sued for allegedly aiding in human rights abuses overseas, Beadle said. The suit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in Oakland.
Ling, who is now reportedly in San Francisco, said court records show that the Chinese government requested records of her husband's Internet activity, which Yahoo provided. Now, Wang "has been tortured in the Chinese prison where he is being held," according to Beadle.
Yahoo said in a statement that it has not had time to review the lawsuit and could not comment on it. It added that it was "distressed that citizens in China have been imprisoned for expressing their political views on the Internet."
The U.S. State Department, which handles foreign relations, should "continue making this issue of free expression a priority in bilateral and multilateral forums with the Chinese," Yahoo said.
The case highlights the pressure under which Western technology companies operate in China, and how their activities are scrutinized for their influence on human rights.
Yahoo has come under repeated fire by Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders. One prominent case involved the journalist Shi Tao, who was sentenced in April 2005 for divulging state secrets to foreigners.
Yahoo turned over e-mail from Tao's account to authorities, including one he sent to pro-democracy activists in New York about Chinese government concerns about unrest during an anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
Yahoo, along with technology giants such as Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp., have defended their actions by saying they must abide by the laws of the country in which they operate.
The companies have argued that the benefits to citizens of having access to the Internet outweigh the negatives of not being in China. That defense hasn't sat well with activists, who say it still amounts to abetting human rights abuses.
Investors are also expressing concern. The comptroller of New York, a Google shareholder that oversees pension funds for civil employees, plans to submit a proposal asking Google to institute "policies to help protect freedom of access to the Internet," according to a regulatory filing on April 6 with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Google has recommended that shareholders vote against the proposal at the company's annual meeting on May 10 in Mountain View, California. The comptroller's funds hold 486,617 shares of Google's Class A common stock.
Technology companies are taking their own initiatives to deflect criticism. In January, Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, and Vodafone Group plc agreed to develop a code of conduct with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to promote freedom of expression and privacy rights, while making them more accountable for their actions.