A Victory For Freedom

Posted: Nov 26, 2007 12:00 AM

Democracy scored a huge victory earlier this month, one that the media has largely overlooked. Yahoo Inc., the Internet company made famous by their search engine, settled out of court with two Chinese journalists who sued the company under U.S. human rights laws for providing the Chinese government with identifying information about their Internet use.

One of the journalists, Wang Xiaoning, is an editor of several publications that advocate for democracy in China and was arrested in 2002 after police raided his home. Charged with government subversion, Xiaoning was sentenced to jail. Advocacy groups that received word of the arrest thought it bizarre that Xiaoning was found so quickly by the Chinese police, though he had anonymously sent his pro-democracy writings. According to the lawsuit, Yahoo gave Xiaoning’s e-mail records to local authorities.

Shi Tao’s case is equally bothersome. A poet and journalist, Tao was detained in 2004 after he sent an e-mail that exposed increased censorship around the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests to Democracy Forum, a joint venture of the National Endowment for Democracy and the Foreign Policy Association that brings together scholars, activists, and policy makers to promote democratic efforts worldwide. Yahoo also released the information that led to his arrest.

Today, both men are serving 10-year sentences in Chinese prisons.

At first glance, it might seem easy to sympathize with Yahoo. If the Chinese government subpoenas information from a business operation in China, one might think that the company is obligated to comply—and that was exactly Yahoo’s argument. They claimed their local affiliate was simply following orders from local law enforcement.

What they didn’t know was that a U.S. law has been in place for over 200 years that lays the groundwork for punishing corporations for human rights violations abroad. They also failed to realize the wrath they would invite upon themselves from the U.S Congress, including both Democrats and Republicans, such as Chris Smith, Dana Rohrbacher, and Tom Lantos.

Human Rights USA (www.humanrightsusa.org), an organization of attorneys committed to combating torture and related discrimination in America and by American companies worldwide, represented the two journalists and, in doing so, gave a voice to the men imprisoned for rejecting China’s one-party, communist government. (Full disclosure: My brother, Rick, is a board member of Human Rights USA.)

Human Rights USA made a straightforward case against Yahoo, outlined in part on their website: “By turning over identifying information about its customers, Yahoo is enabling serious human rights abuses such as torture, forced labor, and arbitrary and prolonged detention based on the exercise of free speech and free press rights.” The lawyer from Human Rights USA who represented the journalists hopes that Yahoo will pressure the Chinese government to release the journalists now that the case has been settled.

Human Rights USA is an important organization whose good work expands far beyond the Yahoo case. Refugee women who want to spare their daughters from sexual abuse have earned the right to do so; the work of Human Rights USA directly resulted in the court decision that established that female genital mutilation qualifies as torture. Their work on another case set a precedent that the usual deadline to file asylum claims need not apply to sexual abuse victims with severe traumatic stress, who might hesitate to report such instances out of fear.

Some conservative groups don’t approve of all Human Rights USA’s work, but surely they can support these particular instances of noble work on behalf of freedom.

Despite the best efforts of groups like Democracy Forum and Human Rights USA, many companies—Internet businesses in particular—do not realize the beast they’re sure to fight when they set up shop in authoritarian countries.

The U.S. House of Representatives has sought to tackle this problem with a bill that would ban companies from saving identifying information about their customers in oppressive countries. The idea is simple: no private data on file, no need for a communist government to subpoena information that could lead to gross violations of human rights.

The bill, which has already been approved in committee and is currently awaiting a floor vote, represents an idea whose time has come, thanks in no small part to the work of Democracy Forum and Human Rights USA. One can only hope that news of this legal victory has reached the two men unjustly trapped in Chinese prisons, and that it speeds their release.

Editors Note: Jane Jacobsen of the National Endowment for Democracy sent in the following correction to this story.

Dear Mr. Wilson: Your article, A Victory for Freedom, has an understandable error in it that I think should be corrected. Shi Tao did not send his email to the Democracy Forum associated with the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the Foreign Policy Association, which is the New York Democracy Forum. Rather,Shi Tao sent the e-mail to: http://www.asiademo.org/ (Asia Democracy Foundation) (which does have a New York office) and the information was posted on the (Democracy Forum) website (which is the Foundation's website). Below is the website for the Democracy Forum (there is no English version of the site). http://www.asiademo.org/

Neither of these organizations are or ever were supported by NED.

Jane Jacobsen
Director, Public Affairs
National Endowment for Democracy