Yahoo Inc. has asked a U.S. judge to dismiss a lawsuit attacking the Internet icon for cooperating with China's communist government, arguing the case is a meritless attempt to meddle in another country's legal affairs.
The 40-page brief filed Monday in Oakland represented Yahoo's first formal response to a 4-month-old lawsuit filed on behalf of two Chinese journalists serving 10-year prison sentences for engaging in pro-democracy efforts that the country's authorities deemed subversive.
Sunnyvale-based Yahoo and its former subsidiary, Yahoo Hong Kong, helped the investigation by providing China's authorities with personal information culled from the e-mail accounts and other online activities of the journalists, Wang Xiaoning and Shi Tao.
Echoing earlier public statements about the matter, Yahoo said its employees had little choice but to comply with China's laws, even if the rules contradicted the United States' constitutional right to free speech.
"No matter how strenuous our disagreement, every sovereign nation has a right to regulate speech within its borders," Yahoo's lawyers wrote.
Morton Sklar, a lawyer representing Wang and Shi, maintains both U.S. and international law required Yahoo to react more responsibly and ethically than it has in China.
Human rights and free-speech advocates have also lambasted other U.S. companies, including Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp., helping the Chinese government stifle the flow of ideas in exchange for greater access to the country's rapidly growing Internet market.
But the convictions of Wang and Shi have focused the most strident criticism on Yahoo. Besides the lawsuit, Yahoo also is facing a Congressional inquiry into whether the company misrepresented its role in Shi's arrest.
If the lawsuit is allowed proceed, Yahoo warned the case could poison the United States' relationship with a major trading partner and provoke the Chinese government to punish dissidents even more harshly.
"It is a political case challenging the laws and actions of the Chinese government," Yahoo's lawyers wrote. "It has no place in the American courts."
Sklar brushed off Yahoo's concerns about the case hurting the United States' foreign interests, calling the argument a "red herring" in a Tuesday interview.
A hearing on Yahoo's dismissal request is scheduled Nov. 1 before U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken.
The lawsuit, initiated by World Organization for Human Rights USA, demands unspecified damages on behalf of Wang and his wife, Yu Ling, as well as Shi. The complaint also seeks an order that would force Yahoo to help free the jailed dissidents.
Since his July 2003 conviction, Wang has been subjected to "brutal treatment" while being given limited contact with outsiders, Yahoo acknowledged in its brief.
Shi, convicted in 2005, is jailed in a prison "known for abusive treatment of prisoners," Yahoo's lawyers wrote.
But Yahoo stressed the company shouldn't be held responsible for the two men's plight. "They assumed the risk of harm when they chose to use Yahoo China e-mail and group list services to engage in activity that they knew violated Chinese law," Yahoo's lawyers wrote.