A human rights group launched a campaign Thursday against Yahoo Inc. on grounds the U.S. search company assisted China's communist government with torture by revealing information that led to the arrest of dissidents.
The World Organization for Human Rights USA said businesses that operate abroad need to be more aware of their responsibilities.
"They should not be participating actively in promoting and encouraging major human rights abuses," said Morton Sklar, executive director for the Washington, D.C.-based organization.
Yahoo has acknowledged turning over data on its users at the request of the Chinese government, saying company employees face civil and criminal sanctions if they ignore local laws.
Without commenting directly on a federal lawsuit the human rights group had prepared against Yahoo, company spokesman Jim Cullinan said such matters are "better suited for diplomacy than it is in the legal forum."
He said that although company officials are "distressed that citizens in China have been imprisoned for expressing their political view on the Internet," Yahoo plans to keep offering services in China out of a belief the Internet can promote change and transform lives in that country.
The human rights group planned to announce its lawsuit Thursday, citing federal laws that govern torture and other violations of international law. Plaintiffs were expected to include jailed dissident Wang Xiaoning and his wife, Yu Ling, who was visiting San Francisco this week as part of the group's campaign.
Sklar said he knew of three other cases, but the dissidents were reluctant to join the complaint for fear of harm to their families living in China. Among those three dissidents is journalist Shi Tao, who was sentenced in 2005 to 10 years in jail.
Part of the lawsuit's goal will be to determine how widespread Yahoo's assistance was, Sklar said, "and to stop this practice of U.S. corporations being complicit." The group is seeking unspecified damages and wants Yahoo to actively secure the release of any detainees.
Yahoo rivals Microsoft Corp. and Google Inc. also have been accused of helping the Chinese government crush dissent in return for access to booming Internet markets, but only Yahoo has been accused of directly assisting in a dissident's arrest.
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Google has offered a censored version of its popular search engine, while Microsoft shut down, at Beijing's request, a popular Chinese blog that touches on sensitive topics such as press freedoms.
Activists, meanwhile, have criticized Cisco Systems Inc. for selling computer networking equipment that could potentially be used to monitor Internet use.