EFF wants Cisco in front of a judge over tech for China's 'Great Firewall'

Files amicus brief in decade-old Falun Gong case

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is hoping to help re-start a lawsuit against Cisco over whether or not it provided technology China's government used to facilitate human rights abuses.

The row over China's "Golden Shield" (aka the Great Firewall) has gone on practically forever, with Amnesty accusing Cisco of involvement, along with now-defunct Nortel Networks, Microsoft, Oracle-swallowed Sun Microsystems, and Websense, back in 2002.

Activists in the US have been trying to sue technology companies over the technology they've pitched into the Great Firewall, on the grounds that it helps the Chinese government identify, and subsequently pursue, dissidents. The EFF had tried before to lodge an amicus brief, but that was dismissed in September 2014.

Now the EFF is back, saying the 2014 decision was wrong and asking the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to recognise its brief, and to re-open the original Alien Tort Statute (ATS) case against Cisco.

ATS cases provide an avenue for foreign citizens to seek remedies in US courts, for human rights violations committed overseas. The nub of the current case is that while merely selling a general-purpose product doesn't qualify for an ATS lawsuit, Cisco's actions went beyond shipping a box and banking the proceeds.

Companies that "intentionally build and provide ongoing support for customised technologies" used for the "clear purpose" of human rights abuses don't deserve protection.

One thing that's changed since the 2014 decision is that the EFF's lawyers have combed through a case concluded in 2015, Balintulo vs Daimler, that accused the car-maker of colluding with South Africa's apartheid regime.

While that case ended in disappointment for the plaintiff, there's enough encouragement in the decision for the EFF to cite it in its latest filing. In particular, the EFF reckons the standard of "aid and abet" defined by the Balintulo case applies to the accusations against Cisco.

The plaintiffs – mostly John Does to protect their identity – say Cisco's customisations specifically helped the Chinese government identify, harass and torture members of Falun Gong, a quasi-religious group China believes is subversive.

In particular, the EFF's media statement claims, Cisco helped put a library of Falun Gong activity into Golden Shield. The Register has contacted Cisco for comment. ®

Updated to add

A Cisco spokesperson has told us: "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."

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