A Chinese dissident and his wife are suing Yahoo! Inc (“Yahoo”) in a United States District Court (with the help of the World Organisation for Human Rights USA). The Complaint states that Yahoo “willingly provided Chinese officials with access to private e-mail records, copies of email messages, e-mail addresses, user ID numbers, and other identifying information about the Plaintiffs and the nature and content of their use of electronic communications.”
Wang Xiaoning was accused of “incitement to subvert state power” because of certain essays he wrote for online journals called Democratic Reform Free Forum and Current Political Commentary. Wang and his wife allege that Yahoo was pressured by the Chinese government to block Wang’s Yahoo “Group account”. Wang then set up a new individual e-mail account via Yahoo and continued sending material. It is then alleged that Yahoo allowed the Chinese government to access information which allowed it to identify and arrest Wang. He was arrested in September 2002, and a year later, he was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison and two years’ subsequent deprivation of political rights. Wang is imprisoned in a high security prison where many political prisoners are held. He alleges that he has suffered severe physical and psychological abuse as a result of his imprisonment.
According to Human Rights in China, the offending sentiments expressed by Wang included the following:
- “Without a multi-party system, free elections and separation of powers, any political reform is fraudulent.”
- “Never forget that China is still an authoritarian dictatorship.”
- “The Four Cardinal Principles [upholding the socialist path, the people’s democratic dictatorship, the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong thought] are the greatest impediment to establishing a democratic system in China.”
- “Look at China today – workers and peasants have been suppressed into the lowest level of society. Tens of millions of workers are unemployed and many workers are cruelly exploited and oppressed; they have no right to strike or establish labor unions, and no protection for their most basic rights.”
- “The main reason that the Chinese Communist Party has been able to retain power in spite of being so corrupt is that China does not yet have a party that can replace the Communist Party.”
The claims are brought pursuant to the Alien Tort Statute 28 U.S.C. § 1350 and the Torture Victim Protection Act 28 U.S.C. § 1350. It is claimed that these statutes give jurisdiction over actions which American based companies commit in other countries. The Complaint alleges that Yahoo provided information about Wang and other dissidents, despite its knowledge that the provision of such information would enable the Chinese government to torture and commit torts against Wang and other dissidents. It is alleged that Yahoo provided the information because it had to do so to continue its profitable business in China.
Usually, the extraterritorial operation of US law has been used enforce the interests of American corporations abroad, sometimes to the detriment of locals and local companies (as Australia may learn to its sorrow as a result of its entry into the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement). It is heartening to see that the argument that certain principles should apply in other countries can be turned against American corporations who aid and abet violations of human rights in other countries.