San Francisco—The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is urging a federal appeals court to reinstate a lawsuit seeking to hold Cisco Systems accountable for aiding in human rights abuses by building the Chinese government a system that Cisco officials knew was intended to identify—and facilitate the capture and torture of—members of the Falun Gong religious minority.
In an amicus brief filed Monday with the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, EFF and the groups ARTICLE 19 and Privacy International argue that the plaintiffs sufficiently alleged that Cisco understood that the “Golden Shield” system (also known as The Great Firewall) it custom-built for China was an essential component of the government’s program of persecution against the Falun Gong—persecution that included online spying and tracking, detention, and torture.
In Doe v. Cisco Systems Inc., Falun Gong victims and their families sued Cisco under a law known as the Alien Tort Statute, which allows noncitizens to bring claims in U.S. federal court for violations of human rights laws. A federal judge dismissed the case, saying the plaintiffs didn’t offer enough support for their claim that Cisco knew the customized features of the Golden Shield enabling the identification and apprehension of Falun Gong practitioners specifically would ultimately lead to torture.
As EFF explains in its brief, the judge misapplied the law.
“The facts alleged by the plaintiffs are sufficient to proceed with a lawsuit claiming Cisco knew that technologies it designed from its offices in San Jose, California, would facilitate human rights abuses, and purposefully built its products to help the Chinese government carry out its program of repressing, capturing, and abusing Falun Gong members,” said EFF Staff Attorney Sophia Cope. “Company officials didn’t have to be present in China in order to assist human rights violations, and victims have a right to their day in court.’’
The Golden Shield system included a library of Falun Gong Internet activity enabling the Chinese government to identify Falun Gong members online, according to the lawsuit. The case also contains strong evidence that Cisco created systems for storing and sharing information about “forced conversion”—i.e. torture—sessions for use as training tools. The cooperation was also documented in internal marketing literature, where a Cisco engineer described the company’s commitment to China’s security objectives, including the “douzheng” of Falun Gong practitioners. Douzheng is a term describing abuse campaigns against disfavored groups comprising of persecution and torture.
“Cisco’s conduct is part of a growing trend of U.S. and European technology companies helping repressive governments become highly efficient at committing human rights violations,” said Cope. “We are asking the Ninth Circuit to recognize that victims of such abuses can seek to hold accomplices like Cisco accountable for their role in brutal persecutions.”