Cisco and Abuses of Human Rights in China: Part 1

and Abuses of Human Rights in China: Part 1

Deeplink by Rainey

This is the first in a two-part series explaining the background around
the EFF call
to action
over Cisco assisting the Chinese government in abusing human
rights. This article outlines the background of the issue and the first of our
two demands to Cisco: intervening on behalf of dissident writer Du Daobin. Our
next post will outline specifically how Cisco and other similar networking
companies can pledge to uphold human rights.

If you have not done so, we urge you to sign
our petition
to Cisco. And if you’ve already signed, please continue to spread
the word

Understanding Du v. Cisco

What responsibility do corporations have to consider human rights when making
business deals? Are companies that build and market equipment for the purpose of
surveilling and censoring pro-democracy activists in authoritarian regimes
culpable when those activists are imprisoned or tortured? Do companies bear a
special responsibility if they customize products to improve the efficacy of
tracking dissidents and choking free speech? What if the companies train
government agents in using the technology to ferret out activists?

Two cases — one in the United States District Court of Maryland and another
in the Northern District of California — are attempting to create legal
precedent around these issues of corporate social responsibility. In Du v.
, three named plaintiffs – Chinese citizens Du Daobin, Zhou Yuanzhi,
and Liu Xianbin – are joining 10 unnamed “John Doe" plaintiffs in suing the
American company Cisco Systems for their role in assisting the Chinese Communist
Party (CCP) in violating human rights. The complaint against Cisco alleges that
the plaintiffs in the case:

Have been and are being subjected to grave violations of some of the most
universally recognized standards of international law, including prohibitions
against torture, cruel, inhuman or other degrading treatment or punishment,
arbitrary arrest and prolonged detention, and forced labor, for exercising their
rights of freedom of speech, association, and assembly, at the hands of the
Defendants through Chinese officials.

The complaint
makes several accusations against Cisco Systems, including:

  • That Cisco Systems “aggressively sought contracts to provide substantial
    assistance in helping the Chinese government implement the Golden Shield
  • That Cisco knew its services and products would be used by Chinese law
    enforcement, prisons, forced labor camps and also to police Internet usage
  • That Cisco employees themselves customized or trained others to customize
    the equipment they sold to China to meet the unique goals of the Golden Shield
    Project, including targeting disfavored groups in China
  • That Cisco knew the Golden Shield Project would be used to commit human
    rights violations

To understand these issues, one must first understand China’s Golden Shield
Project, often referred to in the West as the Great Firewall of China. According
to the complaint as well as published articles on the topic,1
the system employs a series of techniques to monitor and track the Internet
usage of people in China and prevent them from accessing a wide swath of online
content. The surveillance aspects are extensive; the government is often able to
not only track what sites an individual visits, but may also be pinpointing who
that individual is, what messages that person posts, and even the content of her

The complaint alleges that the system sold by Cisco, and subsequent training,
allows Chinese officials to “access private internet communications, identify
anonymous web log authors, prevent the broadcast and dissemination of peaceful
speech, and otherwise aid and abet in the violation of Plaintiffs’ fundamental
human rights."(para. 2). The government is able to block access to certain
content on the Internet – either temporarily or forever – using several
techniques, including blocking domain names or entire IP addresses. Access to
information that is critical of the CCP or provides unflattering evidence about
CCP – such as information about the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests – is
frequently inaccessible from within China. Search results for terms like “Egypt"
have been blocked for fear they might inspire an uprising, and social networks
like Facebook and Twitter are inaccessible. Cisco readily admits to selling this
equipment to China, but denies
allegations that they customized that equipment for the unique needs of the
Chinese government.

At this point, only an initial complaint has been made against Cisco Systems,
and it’s likely that much of the evidence that will be used against them, and
that that they will use in defense, is not yet available. However, the initial
complaint does point to some public evidence. It references a leaked
90 page internal presentation
of Cisco from 2002. The document shows that
Cisco Systems had extensively evaluated the Chinese government’s needs for a
censorship and surveillance system and even noted that the system could be used
to target disfavored groups. The documents produced by Cisco specifically note
that the Golden Shield Project would (exact quote) “‘Combat Falun Gong’ evil
religion and other hostiles." It also specifically mentions China’s “forced
labor" centers and “forced custody and education centers."

As noted above, Du v. Cisco is only one of the two lawsuits currently
pending against Cisco Systems for their hand in facilitating human rights abuses
in China. The other
, filed by the Human Rights Law Foundation on behalf of members of Falun
Gong and pending in the Northern District of California, is attempting to seek
class-action status for the many Falun Gong members who were identified,
imprisoned, tortured and (in some instances) killed by Chinese government agents
relying on information obtained using equipment supplied by Cisco.

Addressing Differences in a Court Room, Not a Torture Chamber

We believe all of the plaintiffs in the cases against Cisco Systems are
taking great risks through their involvement in the lawsuits. Recently, Du
Daobin’s attorney published
a blog
noting that his client had been detained and interrogated at length
by senior officials from China’s Ministry of Public Security about his role in
Du v. Cisco. Mr. Du and the other plaintiffs are currently at risk of
further torture, imprisonment, or even “disappearance."

Regardless of whether Cisco “merely" sold surveillance and censorship
equipment to China or whether they customized this equipment to pinpoint
dissidents, it’s clear that the place to decide this issue is a court of law.
The plaintiffs have a right to present their evidence and have a court rule on
the legitimacy of their claims. But if the plaintiffs are tortured or imprisoned
in China before the trial can take place, no justice will be served.

If Cisco believes what it did was legal, it should be eager to see a court
ruling to that effect. Therefore, it’s in Cisco’s own interest to show their
commitment to human rights and the rule of law by speaking out now for the
safety of the plaintiffs in the case. After all, Mr. Du was asked
about his lawsuit against Cisco
during the interrogation, so it’s clear that
the detention and harassment is being done, at least in part, to protect Cisco
by convincing Mr. Du and the others to drop their case.

Even if the detention wasn’t being done to benefit or protect Cisco directly,
however, it makes sense that the the Chinese government would pay particular
attention to statements from Cisco given the many-year relationship Cisco has
cultivated with Chinese government officials. A statement from Cisco affirming
their commitment to the rule of law and hopes for the continued safety of Du
Daobin and the other plaintiffs could well help to keep these activists safe
while the case winds its way through the courts.

Digital rights supporters have sent a steady stream of emails to Cisco
Systems over this issue, but it appears that Cisco still doesn’t realize how
important it is for for them to stand up for the safety of Du Daobin and the
other plaintiffs in the cases.

To clarify, we are asking Cisco to contact their customers and business
partners in the Chinese government and tell them not to target the plaintiffs in
Du v. Cisco or Doe v. Cisco. We hope Cisco will prove that they
don’t condone bullying tactics used to repress free speech and that they believe
these disputes should be settled under the rule of law, not the iron fist. We’d
be particularly pleased if Cisco would make a public statement about their
stance on the continued safety of the plaintiffs – and it would certainly go a
long way to improving their public image at this time when the world is
watching. But above all, we urge Cisco to use every method at their disposal to
ensure that Du Daobin and all of the plaintiffs in both cases make it through
the court process, and beyond, unharmed by Chinese officials.

We’ve taken the liberty of writing a script to help guide Cisco through the
conversation with their Chinese business partners, making it that much easier
for them to fulfill this request:

Dear (insert names of business contacts in China),

As you know, Cisco Systems is currently being sued in the United States
over the sale of equipment to you. We’re contacting you today to let you know
that we do not wish you to harass, harm or otherwise attempt to dissuade or
scare the plaintiffs in those cases. We believe that individuals like Mr. Du
Daobin, one of the plaintiffs in the case, have a right to speak freely – even
if they use their rights to file a lawsuit against us. We intend to resolve this
matter in court and do not need or want any representative from your government
to contact Mr. Du Daobin in any way. Please refrain from targeting the
plaintiffs in the case against us; give us a chance to respond to the
allegations in court.

Hope all those routers and other devices we sold you are still working

Your pals at Cisco

Moving forward

There are several things we’d like to see happen now that these cases have
been filed against Cisco Systems. We hope to see Cisco Systems held accountable
for their actions, if they did indeed facilitate human rights abuses in China.
But just as importantly, we’re hoping to see a thoughtful discussion arise from
this lawsuit about the responsibilities that corporations have to safeguard
human rights in their business deals, especially where those business deals are
with governments with well-established records of repression.

We also hope that the United States government will explore what role it
should play in ensuring American companies do not supply authoritarian regimes
with tools to censor and control individuals.

We’ll be discussing these issues in greater deal in our second post on this
topic. For now, we urge supporters to keep sending
emails to Cisco
and stay tuned to the EFF Twitter feed for additional updates
on the case.

  1. 1.
    There are a range of articles written about surveillance and censorship in
    China. If you’d like to learn more about this issue, here are a few articles to
    get you started:

Attachment Size
Du-Cisco-Complaint.pdf 2.39 MB

Related Issues: International, Privacy




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