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EFF Urges Revival of Human Rights Case Against Cisco

By John P. Mello Jr.
Jan 13, 2016 11:35 AM PT

The Electronic Frontier Foundation on Monday pressed to revive a lawsuit against Cisco Systems for violating human rights in China, in a brief filed with a U.S. Court of Appeals.

EFF Urges Revival of Human Rights Case Against Cisco

Members of Falun Gong, a religious group persecuted in China, originally filed the lawsuit in 2011, but a federal district court in California dismissed it in 2014. The federal appeals court now is considering a challenge to that dismissal.

"We applaud the role technology companies play in spreading the benefits of the digital age around the world," the EFF wrote in an amicus brief filed with the appellate court.

"We believe it is inappropriate to hold technology companies liable for violations of international law under the [Alien Tort Act] based solely on their provision of general-purpose or dual purpose technologies to governments or others who misuse them to commit human rights violations," the brief states.

The Alien Tort Act allows noncitizens to file lawsuits in U.S. courts for human rights violations.

"However, it is also important to ensure that liability is preserved for companies that intentionally build and provide ongoing support for customized technologies that have the clear purpose of facilitating governmental human rights abuses," the brief continues.

Cisco's Complicity

"Plaintiffs have presented allegations and evidence in this case that, if substantiated through discovery, would be sufficient to support such liability for Cisco's customization of the 'Golden Shield' (also known as 'The Great Firewall')," the EFF brief notes.

In dismissing the case against Cisco, the federal district court judge said that the Falun Gong victims didn't offer enough support for their claim that Cisco knew the customized features of the Golden Shield, which enabled the identification and apprehension of Falun Gong practitioners, would lead to their torture.

The EFF disputes the court's finding.

"We're saying the district court is wrong, because there are allegations in the complaint that Cisco designed and customized its product with the knowledge it would be used for human rights abuses," said Sophia Cope, an EFF staff attorney.

"Once Cisco got the contract to work on Golden Shield, they customized features of it to target the Falun Gong specifically," she told TechNewsWorld. "We think the facts show that Cisco fully understood, intended and purposely built the Golden Shield to facilitate in the persecution of Falun Gong."

Cisco Did No Wrong

Throughout the proceedings, Cisco has denied any wrongdoing.

"We have always maintained that there is no basis for the allegations against Cisco, and there is no merit to the case. We do not customize our products in any way that would facilitate censorship or repression. The case was correctly dismissed by the District Court," the company said in a statement provided to TechNewsWorld by spokesperson Robyn Blum.

Cisco isn't the only U.S. high-tech company accused of helping authoritarian states violate human rights in recent times. Blue Coat, for example, allegedly supplied Web-monitoring software used to squash dissent in Syria.

As it turned out, two individuals and three companies illegally sold Blue Coat products to Syria. The U.S. Commerce Department last year yanked the export licenses of all of those parties.

Chilling Effect

"It would be unfortunate to go after a technology provider for the use of their equipment," said Richard Stiennon, chief research analyst with IT Harvest. "It's like going after a gun manufacturer when their guns are used to harm people."

The Cisco case's validity rests on how much the company knew when working with the Chinese on the Golden Shield.

"To me, it hinges on how complicit was Cisco in helping to design and configure The Great Firewall," Stiennon told TechNewsWorld.

"No company's management should do evil or allow evil to be done with their products," he said, "but this could have a chilling effect on manufacturers selling to less than lily-white countries."

John Mello is a freelance technology writer and contributor to Chief Security Officer magazine. You can connect with him on Google+.

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