Yahoo and at least one subsidiary face their second major lawsuit by Chinese dissidents claiming the company aided Chinese authorities by handing over emails and other electronic communications that ended up landing one plaintiff in jail.
The first lawsuit ended in November after Yahoo settled with the plaintiffs out of court. The company may come to regret settling the case if more such lawsuits follow.
The current lawsuit, filed by plaintiffs Li Zhi, Zheng Cunzhu, and Guo Quan in the District Court of Northern California, seeks damages for their suffering at the hands of Chinese officials after Yahoo and Yahoo Hong Kong allegedly provided access to emails, email records and user identification information and other data to authorities in China.
The lawsuit said the three plaintiffs have also identified at least 60 more individuals "arbitrarily imprisoned" in China for work regarding free elections, democracy and human rights, possibly due to their internet identification being handed over by Yahoo, the group said. The plaintiffs plan to make the additional cases known during the trial's discovery phase.
Yahoo did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Specifically, Li is suing over his torture and imprisonment by Chinese officials after his work for the China Democracy Party - a banned political group - was revealed by Yahoo due to his internet activity, the lawsuit alleges. Li, whose case has also been championed by the journalist group Reporters Without Borders, has served over four years of his eight-year prison sentence so far.
Reporters Without Borders said his jail term started in December, 2003.
Zheng is a Chinese citizen currently living in California. His ties to Li were established during Li's court case, and Zheng is now allegedly unable to return to China due to fear of prosecution, according to the lawsuit. He has lost investments and personal property in China due to his inability to return home, the lawsuit said.
Guo lost his job as an associate professor at Nanjing Normal University after his internet identity was revealed to Chinese authorities by Yahoo, the lawsuit alleged.
"By providing internet user identification information to the People's Republic of China, [the] Defendants knowingly and willfully aided and abetted in the commission of torture and other major abuses violating international law that caused Plaintiffs' severe physical and mental pain and suffering," the lawsuit alleged.
The group has filed suit in the US under the Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789, as well as unspecified additional US and international laws. The use of this act for purposes of democracy and human rights is relatively new in US courts, said one lawyer in Hong Kong, and a decision could go either way.
The first case against Yahoo, filed by plaintiffs on behalf of journalists Wang Xiaoning and Shi Tao, also cited the Alien Tort Claims Act. Yahoo settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
Yahoo operated its China subsidiary until it became part of Alibaba.com in return for a 40 per cent stake in the Chinese ecommerce company in late 2005. Alibaba now runs Yahoo's China operations.