A lawsuit claims internal marketing material shows that Cisco encouraged Chinese authorities to use its products for surveillance and control.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

May 24, 2011

4 Min Read

Networking equipment maker Cisco and its top executives were sued last week in San Jose, Calif., for allegedly providing censorship and surveillance technology to China in violation of the Alien Torts Statute.

The Alien Torts Statute allows individuals to file claims in U.S. courts over violations of the law of nations or a U.S. treaty. It has become a tool by which victims of torture seek redress for human rights abuses, particularly those alleged to have occurred outside the U.S.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Chinese practitioners of Falun Gong, a religious group that faces ongoing persecution by Chinese authorities. In addition to Cisco, the complaint names CEO John Chambers, and two Cisco China executives, as well as other unspecified defendants.

The complaint charges that Cisco "designed, supplied, and helped maintain a censorship and surveillance network known as the Golden Shield in collaboration with Chinese Community Party and Chinese Public Security officials, knowing and intending that it would be utilized [by authorities] to eavesdrop, tap, and intercept communications, identify and track Plaintiffs as Falun Gong members for the specific purpose of subjecting them to gross human rights abuses."

Cisco disputes these claims. "There is no basis for these allegations against Cisco, and we intend to vigorously defend against them," a company spokesperson said in an email statement. "Cisco does not operate networks in China or elsewhere, nor does Cisco customize our products in any way that would facilitate censorship or repression. Cisco builds equipment to global standards which facilitate free exchange of information, and we sell the same equipment in China that we sell in other nations worldwide in strict compliance with U.S. government regulations."

China has proven to be a problematic market for many foreign companies, particularly those in the U.S. In 2005, a Chinese court sentenced Chinese journalist Shi Tao to 10 years in prison for revealing state secrets. Yahoo provided Chinese authorities with critical evidence about Shi Tao's email communication. The incident prompted a widespread outcry against Yahoo and tarnished the company's reputation. Two years later, Yahoo offered financial support to the families of Shi Tao and Wang Xiaoning, another jailed dissident, and then-CEO Jerry Yang delivered a public apology to Shi Tao's mother at a Congressional hearing.

Google in 2006 acknowledged how difficult it was to provide adequate service to users in China, but insisted the compromises it had to make to do business there would lead to a more open China in the years ahead. Then in early 2010, the company changed course and severely curtailed its operations in China, citing "a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google" and attempts to hack into the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.

This is not the first time Cisco has had to justify its business with in China. Cisco was among several Internet companies that testified on Feb. 15, 2006, before a U.S. House of Representatives International Relations subcommittee on the issue of censorship in China. During the hearing, Mark Chandler, Cisco's SVP and general counsel, defended his company, asserting, "Cisco does not customize, or develop specialized or unique filtering capabilities, in order to enable different regimes to block access to information."

Yet the company's claim that it merely provides neutral technology without being aware of how its products will be used was rebutted two months later in a hearing before the same subcommittee on April 19, 2006, when author Ethan Gutmann cited Cisco brochures from the Shanghai Gold Shield trade show in December 2002 as evidence of the company's effort to cater to the needs of police authorities.

"Newly translated documents explicitly show Cisco was training the Chinese police in surveillance techniques as early as 2001," Gutmann claimed.

The lawsuit cites internal Cisco marketing material as part of its evidence, but those documents aren't public yet and there is no way of knowing if they are the same material cited by Gutmann in his testimony. If such marketing material exists and gets introduced as evidence, it's likely to play a central role in determining the outcome of the lawsuit.

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About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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