Falun Gong is a spiritual group founded in China with millions of followers that was banned in China in 1999 for being a “heretical organization” and, indeed, a political threat. Human rights advocates have regularly reported that Falun Gong practitioners in China have been subjected to numerous human rights abuses. In a lawsuit filed last Thursday in Federal District Court for the Northern District of California in San Jose, Falun Gong alleges that networking giant Cisco Systems “supplied and helped maintain a surveillance system” known as the “Golden Shield” which “allowed the Chinese government to track and censor the group’s Internet activities,” says CNET.
Indeed, the “Golden Shield” system was, the suit contends, designed to censor Internet traffic flowing into China and to identify opponents of the Chinese government and keep them under surveillance. Cisco is being accused of assisting China in repressing dissidents and even aiding and abetting in abuse, torture and execution.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Falun Gong by the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Law Foundation. Cisco’s CEO John Chambers and two other executives are named as defendants in the 52-page lawsuit, which seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages from Cisco and enjoins the company not to conduct “further unlawful activity”:
The lawsuit, which seeks class-action status, alleges that Golden Shield — described in Cisco marketing materials as Policenet — resulted in the arrest of as many as 5,000 Falun Gong members. Cisco “competed aggressively” for the contracts to design the Golden Shield system “with full knowledge that it was to be used for the suppression of the Falun Gong religion,” according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit was brought on behalf of 11 plaintiffs who are described as suffering torture and sometimes death at the hands of the Chinese government. The lawsuit listed eight of the plaintiffs anonymously to avoid “retaliation and further human rights abuses.” Three plaintiffs are identified by name: Ivy He, of Canada; Liu Guifu, of New York state; and Charles Lee, an American citizen who traveled to China in 2003 and was detained at the airport and tortured until his 2006 release.
Cisco’s activity in China only became public in 2008 through a leaked PowerPoint presentation. When this was revealed, Cisco “disassociated itself from the marketing materials, stating that they were the work of a low-level employee,” says the New York Times. But Falun Gong’s suit claims otherwise:
The suit claims that additional Cisco marketing presentations prove that it promoted its technology as being capable of taking aim at dissident groups. In one marketing slide, the goals of the Golden Shield are described as to “douzheng evil Falun Gong cult and other hostile elements.” Douzheng is a Chinese term used to describe the persecution of undesirable groups. It was widely used by the Communist Party in the Cultural Revolution.
In a post on BoingBoing about the lawsuit, Cory Doctorow raises a key point:
For me, the case hinges on the extent to which Cisco knew — or should have known — how its products were used. China’s record with respect to Falun Gong and other dissident groups is well-known. Cisco’s vigorous denial of any knowledge of the oppressive use of its technology just don’t pass the giggle test. It will be interesting to see what the court case reveals about the ongoing relationship between Cisco and the Chinese security apparat — if Cisco had on-site techs helping to create and maintain Golden Shield, it will be hard for them to argue that they didn’t know what was going on.
Here is Cisco’s response to the lawsuit:
“Cisco does not operate networks in China or elsewhere, nor does Cisco customize our products in any way that would facilitate censorship or repression,” the representative said in a statement, adding that the company sells the same equipment in China that it sells in other nations in compliance with U.S. government regulations.
The Falun Gong suit further points to the legal headaches — and serious ethical and human rights violations — technology companies can step into as they seek to expand the global reach of their business. How much did Cisco know — or rather, how much will it claim that it knew?
Photo by infomatique.