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. Cisco, 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 Project"
  • 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 topic1, 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 communications.

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 case, 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 well.

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. 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: Surveillance of Skype Messages Found in China, John Markoff, (10/1/2008); China boosts internet surveillance, Tania Branigan, (7/26/11); The Architecture of Control: Internet Surveillance in China, James A. Lewis, Center for Strategic and International Studies (7/06); "The Connection Has Been Reset," James Fallows (3/08)