August 15, 2013 | By Cindy Cohn

EFF Supports Human Rights Case Against Cisco for Selling Surveillance Technologies to China

EFF filed an amicus brief in an important case known as Du v. Cisco, where Chinese human rights activists have sued the US tech giant Cisco in Maryland federal court. The case alleges that Cisco knowingly customized, marketed, sold, and provided continued support and service for technologies used by the Chinese government to facilitate human rights abuses.  

The case arises in part from the publication several years ago of a presentation in which Cisco confirms that the Golden Shield is helpful to the Chinese government to “Combat Falun Gong Evil Religion and Other Hostilities.” This shocking statement indicated not only that Cisco knew of the Chinese government’s strategy of repression of dissident groups, but that it was marketing and customizing its Golden Shield technologies to meet those goals. Shortly after this case was filed in August 2011, China detained the lead plaintiff, Du Daobin, and interrogated him about his involvement in the case. EFF called on Cisco to intervene to help protect the plaintiffs.

Over the past few years EFF has documented (here, here, here) the increasing use of sophisticated surveillance technologies from the U.S. and European companies to facilitate human rights abuses around the world. The Complaint in this case contains specific allegations that Cisco's Golden Shield technology was used to detect pseudonyms used by the plaintiffs and to track their publications on websites outside China. 

Cisco is seeking to have the case dismissed at the outset. EFF’s brief, written with the assistance of our crack legal intern Colin Farlow, argues that, based upon the troubling facts asserted in the Complaint, the case should survive to discovery. First, EFF notes that the Complaint asserts sufficient activity by the American company, Cisco to survive as a case in the U.S. courts. Second, EFF points out that four key facts taken together would support a finding that Cisco aided and abetted or engaged in a conspiracy to violate international law. Specifically:

1)        Marketing: The Complaint offers detailed allegations regarding the marketing, sale and support of the product for the facilitation of human rights violations by China against political dissidents. Most dramatically is the marketing presentation that asserts that the Golden Shield technology can help the Chinese government to “combat ‘Falun Gong’ evil religion and other hostilities.”

2)        Customization: The Complaint alleges that Cisco customized its technologies for the purpose of facilitating human rights violations by China against dissidents,

3)        Specific Knowledge: The Complaint highlights China’s well-documented practice of engaging in gross human rights violations against democracy activists, including Plaintiffs, and Cisco’s specific knowledge of China’s use of the technologies for those purposes,.

4)        Ongoing Support: The Complaint offers detailed factual allegations confirming Defendants’ ongoing relationship with the Chinese government and ongoing support of the customized products.

The brief carefully notes that EFF does not believe that international human rights liability should attach simply for a company making a general purpose or dual purpose technology available to the public. What Cisco allegedly did here much more. Additionally, the brief notes that international human rights law is also limited in ways that will generally prevent growth of liability beyond sales to governmental entities and involvement with gross human rights violations.   

EFF has long cautioned companies against becoming "repression's little helper," and have outlined "Know Your Customer" standards that can help companies avoid participating in human rights abuses. The allegations here are deeply troubling and should be sufficient to allow this case to proceed so that, ultimately, a court can make a complete factual determination of just how deeply Cisco has been involved in the human rights abuses committed against political dissidents in China.

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