Senior executives at Cisco Systems worked closely with Chinese government security agents to tailor hardware and software they knew would be used to track, detain and torture followers of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, according to a U.S. federal lawsuit filed last week.
The suit accuses the networking company’s chief executive John Chambers and leaders of Cisco’s China business of close collaboration with Beijing, citing statements on company websites, at trade shows and in internal documents.
The 52-page complaint was brought by the Washington-based Human Rights Law Foundation, which has handled other legal issues for Falun Gong followers, on behalf of residents in the U.S. and survivors of some said to have been killed in China for their participation in Falun Gong activities.
Cisco has faced criticism in the past for allowing its routers, which have the greatest share of the world market by revenue, to play a crucial role in China’s massive internet blocking and surveillance.
The suit says that by 2007 Cisco and its executives had “played a major role in the high-level design, implementation and post-production support” of a project called Golden Shield, “with solutions specifically tailored to isolate, surveil and suppress Falun Gong practitioners in China”.
Cisco’s collaboration was said to include work on non-standard techniques for redirecting internet users seeking banned sites by “supplying the user with a false reply if their request is for a blocked site, while also identifying and tracking users who attempt to visit these sites”.
Cisco said on Monday that it does nothing special for China and that its equipment’s functions can be altered by any customer.
“There is no basis for these allegations against Cisco, and we intend to vigorously defend against them,” it said. “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 ... facilitate free exchange of information, and we sell the same equipment in China that we sell in other nations worldwide in strict compliance with U.S. government regulations.”
There is scant legal precedent for western technology companies losing court battles on alleged collaboration with repressive regimes, but the issue has taken on increased political significance in the past two years.
Even if Cisco defeats the claims, the suit could pose public relations challenges and renew attempts in the U.S. Congress to pass new laws on the subject.