A Chinese journalist jailed in part due to e-mail evidence provided by a Yahoo Inc. subsidiary plans to file a lawsuit in the U.S. against the Internet company within the next few months. “We’re also trying to line up other victims for a class-action. We’ve been in touch with a few others, but we haven’t signed anyone up yet. It’s a very sensitive issue because there could be reprisals against their families,” said Albert Ho, a legislator in Hong Kong and lawyer in the case, in a telephone interview.
A Yahoo spokeswoman in Hong Kong could not be reached for comment.
A U.S. civil suit against Yahoo on behalf of Shi Tao, a Chinese journalist convicted of “divulging state secrets” by Beijing in part due to an e-mail Yahoo provided to Chinese authorities, will likely be filed in either New York or California, Ho said. Tao’s e-mail, sent from a Yahoo account in April 2004 to a pro-China democracy Web site in New York, contained a Beijing order for officials to be on guard for unrest and dissident activity ahead of the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Tao was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
The new lawsuit would come just months after Ho filed a complaint to Hong Kong authorities against Yahoo Holdings (Hong Kong) Ltd. on behalf of Tao. It also comes at a time when international pressure is increasing on Internet companies to handle the private data of their users more carefully, particularly with respect to human rights.
Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders have both criticized Yahoo over the Tao incident, and a group of U.S. lawmakers blasted a group of Internet companies earlier this year, including Yahoo, Google Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc., for failing to uphold free expression in China.
“Internet companies should not disclose personal information that could violate the basic human rights of their users,” Ho said.
He said Tao, who is not a U.S. citizen, could file a lawsuit in the country under the Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789. The group has not yet decided on a U.S. law firm to retain for the case, nor would Ho divulge the specific strategy or damages the group intends to seek.
The Hong Kong case remains pending because an investigation by authorities has not been finished yet, Ho said. Yahoo could face a fine, a civil lawsuit, or both if Hong Kong’s Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data rules that it illegally divulged personal data used to put Tao in jail. The plaintiffs argue that Yahoo Hong Kong had no right to comply with a request from China for Tao’s personal data, and requested that the office investigate the matter. Yahoo has denied any involvement in the case by its Hong Kong arm. The company has said any information provided to Chinese authorities in this case would have come from Yahoo’s operations in China, rather than Hong Kong. However, Yahoo’s Chinese and Hong Kong operations were both part of the same corporate entity, Yahoo Hong Kong, at that time.
In 2005, Alibaba.com Corp. acquired Yahoo’s Chinese operations as part of a deal that saw Yahoo take a stake in the Chinese Internet company.