Cisco sued over its alleged part in Great Chinese Firewall scandal

How much culpability does an IT company have when it sells technology to a government like China?

About the same time that the architect of China's infamous Internet Firewall was pelted with a shoe by a citizen, a lawsuit was being filed in San Francisco against Cisco for its alleged part in it. Practitioners of a religion known as Falun Gong filed the complaint on Thursday against Cisco, its CEO John Chambers, two of its China executives, and others. The suit claims that Cisco helped design the Chinese Internet surveillance/censorship system known as the Golden Shield. It accuses Cisco of using inflammatory language in order to convince Chinese officials to purchase its products, of helping to design the system and as a result, Falun Gong were found, tortured and killed.

Cisco denies the validity of the suit, saying in a statement, "There is no basis for these allegations against Cisco, and we intend to vigorously defend against them.  Cisco does not operate networks in China or elsewhere, nor does Cisco customize our products in any way that would facilitate censorship or repression.  Cisco builds equipment to global standards which facilitate free exchange of information, and we sell the same equipment in China that we sell in other nations worldwide in strict compliance with US government regulations."  

The civil lawsuit seeks unnamed financial damages from Cisco. In a 52-page court document, the suit says:

"Cisco refers to the Golden Shield system in its internal literature as 'Policenet.' As a direct result of the Defendants' creation, development, and maintenance of the Golden Shield technology with Chinese authorities, Plaintiffs, Falun Gong practitioners, have suffered severe and gross abuses, including false imprisonment, torture, cruel assault, battery, and wrongful death, for which judicial relief is warranted in the form of compensatory and punitive damages. "

The Golden Shield, and the role of Cisco and other U.S. tech giants in it, has been an ongoing battle for years. The Foundation for Defense of Democracy hosts a transcript from a Congressional hearing on the matter from April 19, 2006, given by Ethan Gutmann, a former consultant to American corporations operating in China and a former vice-chair of the Government Relations Committee for the American Chamber of Commerce Beijing. The transcript says:

"Three companies were competing for the Chinanet contracts in 1997: Bay Networks, Sun Microsystems, and Cisco Systems. Cisco prevailed by selling the authorities a “firewall box” at a significant discount, which would allow the Chinese authorities to block the forbidden web. Cisco’s General Counsel denies selling any special configuration. Chinese engineers who actually worked on the firewall project are equally adamant that it was custom-made. Either way, as early as 1998, any industry-wide restraints on the transfer of censorship technologies were already being weighed against Cisco’s capture of 80% of the China router market, an unprecedented success story. Yet Cisco’s success may be more closely linked to a Cisco manager’s statement that 'We have the capability to look deeply into the packets.'"

In 2008, a Cisco marketing PowerPoint presentation surfaced. On slide #57 of the 90-slide PowerPoint, created in 2002, during a section where the slides were covering the Golden Shield project, it described the project's three purposes ...

  • To crack down on Internet crimes.
  • To ensure the security of public Internet services.
  • To combat the Falun Gong cult and other hostiles.

Cisco distanced itself from the slides at the time, saying they were to help educate its employees about the Chinese landscape.

So then, why the lawsuit now? Perhaps because in the past few months, the country's censorship has escalated as online protests threatening revolution have. In March, Google said the Chinese government was blocking Gmail access. VPNs were also reportedly blocked.

Lots here to discuss.

If Cisco knew the Chinese government would be using this technology to ultimately hunt down and hurt its citizens, how much responsibility does it have in the matter? Cisco clearly understood the reality of Chinese censorship.

What are your thoughts on Cisco's responsibility if it sold the Chinese government gear not modified in any way to support the Golden Shield? Liable or not?

Is a U.S. court even the right venue to deal with these matters? Most importantly, even if Cisco loses and has to pay out a huge punitive sum, will this have any impact on how China treats its citizens?

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.