The lawsuit against Yahoo! being filed by the wife of jailed dissident Wang Xiaoning is being represented by Morton Sklar, Executive Director of a group called the World Organization for Human Rights USA. They have posted a full PDF file of their complaint against Yahoo! here. I have gone over it, and also gone over the Chinese language conviction of Wang, posted online in PDF form here and here.
Before we go into the details, a word about the people behind this case. I am not especially familiar with the World Organization for Human Rights USA but here is how they describe themselves:
The World Organization for Human Rights USA, founded in 1996 as the World Organization Against Torture USA, is a non-governmental human rights organization dedicated to the prevention of torture and other human rights abuses.
What sets us apart from the larger and more well-established human rights groups is that we are the only international human rights group in the U.S.:
* Dealing primarily if not exclusively with human rights compliance in the U.S.; and,
* Using litigation in U.S. courts as a primary means for bringing attention to compliance problems and for obtaining relief.
They have recently issued a report titled "Torture by the United States" in which they argue that the U.S. Government "does not properly recognize its own responsibility for the pattern and practice of torture that has been taking place in the treatment of alleged terrorist detainees," etc. I have not read their report in full but I tend to agree with that statement.
I cite this at length as evidence that this case is not a "China-bashing" exercise to make China or Chinese people look bad in contrast with the virtuous Americans. The Bush Administration has been very un-virtuous of late in my opinion. I feel the need to make this completely clear just in case anybody mistakes the motivations of this lawsuit, or my own motivations in criticizing the behavior of Yahoo! and others, especially given these kinds of comments - which I receive fairly regularly.
Back to the matter at hand. The lawsuit filed against Yahoo!, which you can download in full here, includes the following:
28. Defendants greatly benefited from these violations of the Plaintiffs’ fundamental
human rights through their continued and expanded conduct of business in the PRC, the second- largest Internet market in the world with at least 110 million users. Defendants provided identifying information about the Plaintiffs, in violation of the privacy agreements and assurances made to the Defendants’ customers and users, that led to their arbitrary arrest, indefinite detention and torture, in order to obtain the approval and support of PRC officials and their agreement to allow them to continue conducting and expanding the Defendants’ business interests in the PRC.
39. The court specifically relied on evidence supplied by Defendants to identify and convict Wang Xiaoning. The judgment noted that Yahoo! HK informed investigators that a mainland China-based e-mail account (firstname.lastname@example.org) was used to set up Wang Xiaoning’s “aaabbbccc” Yahoo! Group, and that the e-mail address email@example.com, which Wang Xiaoning used to post e-mails to that Yahoo! Group, was also a mainland China-based account maintained by Wang Xiaoning. Defendants were cited in the court decision as instrumental in causing the Plaintiff’s arrest and criminal prosecution.
Based on what I have read and re-read in the sentence handed down in 2003 by the Beijing Number One Intermediate People's court, there are a lot of unanswered questions. I am supposing that the plaintiffs have more evidence that will supply some answers, and which will come out in court if this suit does go to court, given that Wang's wife Yu Lin claims that "If Yahoo did not give out this information, then the Chinese government would not be able to sentence him.'' The lawsuit also claims that Yahoo! supplied the information voluntarily and not under subpoena.
So what does the Chinese court document say and what doesn't it say about Yahoo!'s involvement? To save those of you who read Chinese the effort of downloading and wading through the PDF file, here is a screen cap of the section of the court judgment which discusses Yahoo! and his Yahoo! accounts (click to enlarge to readable size):
Point one, on the previous page, describes how Wang set up a Yahoo! Group using a couple of Yahoo! China e-mail addresses, but that eventually Yahoo! China administrators noticed the politically sensitive content of his postings and stopped him from making further postings to the group.
Point two describes the results of a search of Wang's home conducted by personnel from the Beijing City State Security Bureau, during which time they searched and confiscated his computer, identifying specific document files that Wang had been sending.
Point three describes confirmation of a further offending document on Wang's computer.
Point four says that the Beijing City State Security Bureau confirms that various of these documents were sent by Wang from the Yahoo! China e-mail account firstname.lastname@example.org. They do not specify whether they determined the connection between Wang and this e-mail account from searching Wang's computer or confirmation obtained from Yahoo!, or both.
Point five concerns specific actions by Yahoo!. It says that Yahoo! China is a website operated domestically in China by Yahoo! Holdings (Hong Kong). It then goes on to say that Yahoo! Holdings (Hong Kong) provided confirmation that the Yahoo! Group called "aaabbbccc" run by Wang was set up using the Yahoo China e-mail address email@example.com. No further information is given in the judgment document about whether Yahoo! provided personally identifying information about Wang to the State Security personnel. Nor is there any information about the circumstances under which these State Security personnel obtained information from Yahoo!, from which employees they obtained it, and the extent to which the exchange of information was voluntary.
The red herring about whether the information was handed over by Yahoo! employees based in Hong Kong or China still persists, despite the fact that it seems pretty clear that whatever information was handed over went from Yahoo! employees inside China, as it did in the case of Shi Tao. However at that time, Yahoo! China's operating license was under the name of Yahoo! Holdings (Hong Kong). As it so happens, I have a screenshot from Yahoo! China taken in 2004, when I first did some tests for censorship of politically sensitive words. As you will see there at the bottom of the page, it says: "Copyright 2004 Yahoo! Holdings (Hong Kong) Ltd." This is from cn.search.yahoo.com, one of Yahoo! China's web services hosted inside mainland China. (Click the image below to enlarge.)
Thus the mention of Yahoo! (Hong Kong) Holdings in the Chinese court document. Nevertheless, there is still confusion. The New York Times quotes Yahoo spokesman Jim Cullinan as saying: “Yahoo HK does not exchange info with Yahoo China or give information to mainland Chinese security forces.” That may be technically true at the moment but without further clarification that statement only serves to confuse the facts of the case further... and send journalists without detailed knowledge of these cases down a blind alley.