Lawsuit accuses Cisco of aiding Chinese repression

Cisco Systems designed a surveillance system to help the Chinese government track and ultimately suppress members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, according to a lawsuit the group filed against the network equipment maker.

The lawsuit, which was filed Thursday in Federal District Court for the Northern District of California in San Jose, alleges Cisco supplied and helped maintain a surveillance system known as the “Golden Shield” that allowed the Chinese government to track and censor the group’s Internet activities. As a result of Cisco’s technology, Falun Gong members suffered false imprisonment, torture, and wrongful death, according the lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of the religious group by the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Law Foundation.

The 52-page lawsuit names chairman and CEO John Chambers and two other executives as defendants and seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages and enjoin Cisco from further unlawful activity.

A Cisco spokesperson said there was “no basis” for the allegations in the lawsuit and that the company intended to defend the lawsuit “vigorously”.

“Cisco does not operate networks in China or elsewhere, nor does Cisco customize our products in any way that would facilitate censorship or repression”, the representative said in a statement, adding that the company sells the same equipment in China that it sells in other nations in compliance with United States government regulations.

Falun Gong is described in the lawsuit as a peaceful religious movement of about 70 million to 100 million followers that was founded in 1992 and utilizes the Internet as its primary point of congregation for religious activities. However, the Chinese government began to view the group as a political threat and developed a plan for purging the Falun Gong from the country in 1999, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit, which seeks class-action status, alleges that Golden Shield–described in Cisco marketing materials as Policenet–resulted in the arrest of as many as 5,000 Falun Gong members. Cisco “competed aggressively” for the contracts to design the Golden Shield system “with full knowledge that it was to be used for the suppression of the Falun Gong religion”, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of 11 plaintiffs who are described as suffering torture and sometimes death at the hands of the Chinese government. The lawsuit listed eight of the plaintiffs anonymously to avoid “retaliation and further human rights abuses.” Three plaintiffs are identified by name: Ivy He, of Canada; Liu Guifu, of New York state; and Charles Lee, an American citizen who traveled to China in 2003 and was detained at the airport and tortured until his 2006 release.