The Yahoo lawsuit, filed in April, sought to hold the internet company accountable for its complicity in handing over identifying internet user information to Chinese authorities, which was used to arbitrarily arrest and detain two of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit -- well-known Chinese journalist Shi Tao, and pro-democracy advocate Wang Xiaoning. Both men have been subjected to abuse and torture while in prison. It is suspected that many more individuals have been similarly affected by the sharing of internet user information, including journalists and bloggers listed in two recent reports issued by Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists.
While the details of the settlement agreement remain private according to its terms and the parties' wishes, the issues raised in the course of litigation and in the Congressional hearing indicate some of the key points that were the focus of concern. These include the urgent need to secure, as soon as possible, the release from prison of Wang Xiaoning and Shi Tao; preventing further disclosure of internet user information that could lead to arbitrary arrest and torture; and the need to aid other prisoners who have been jailed as a result of the disclosure of identifying internet user information.
The resolution of the case by settlement agreement is not a perfect solution. Human Rights USA would have preferred that the court make specific findings, on the record, about the unlawful nature of Yahoo's actions, and that the case reach a final judgment that would be legally enforceable by the court. However, the plaintiffs and their families, along with Congress, felt strongly that immediate action was needed to secure the release of the prisoners, particularly given the five years it would take to bring the case to an end, which would have extended beyond the prison sentences that the two plaintiffs are serving.
This settlement agreement highlights the fact that U.S. corporations must pay greater attention to the consequences that their actions have on human rights, and that they will be held accountable for participating in, or aiding and abetting, major human rights abuses.
The agreement should also provide incentive for Congress to adopt the Global Online Freedom Act, a statute which, if passed, would prohibit U.S. internet companies from disclosing identifying internet user information to repressive governments that are likely to use such information to put a clamp on free speech and free press rights. This law would also provide U.S. companies with additional justification for not complying with government requests for this type of information, where compliance would result in the imprisonment or torture of individuals for repressive purposes.