In the digital age, repressive governments do not act alone to violate human rights. They have accomplices—often Western technology companies—with the sophistication and technical know-how that those repressive governments lack.
In this case, the plaintiffs are followers of the religious movement called Falun Gong in China. They were victims of torture and other human rights abuses at the hands of the Chinese government.
The plaintiffs sued American technology giant Cisco, based in San Jose, California, under the Alien Tort Statute for aiding and abetting human rights violations by building and customizing the Golden Shield surveillance system, also known as The Great Firewall, to facilitate the Chinese government's campaign of persecution against the Falun Gong.
EFF applauds the role technology companies play in spreading the benefits of the digital age around the world. We believe it is inappropriate to hold technology companies liable for violations of international law based solely on their provision of general-purpose or dual-purpose technologies to governments or others who misuse them to commit human rights abuses.
However, we also believe it is important to ensure that liability is preserved for companies that purposefully build and provide ongoing support for customized technologies that assist governments in violating human rights.
If aiding and abetting liability under the Alien Tort Statute is to mean anything, it must apply to cases like this—where the plaintiffs allege that an American company took knowing and purposeful steps in the United States to market to and provide a foreign government with customized technological tools to meet its specific persecutory goals.