In Hong Kong, a protester holds a portrait of the jailed writer Liu Xianbin. (Reuters)
In Hong Kong, a protester holds a portrait of the jailed writer Liu Xianbin. (Reuters)

In lawsuit, Chinese writers allege Cisco aids government

Three Chinese writers who have spent time in prison for articles published online are suing California-based Cisco Systems Inc., according to international news reports. The suit accuses the company of providing information and technology to Chinese authorities that facilitated the writers’ detentions–allegations that Cisco flatly denies. Chinese security officials have already interrogated one of the plaintiffs, according to his lawyer. Will the case against Cisco protect him and others in China from further repercussions? 

The writers, Du Daobin, Liu Xianbin, and Zhou Yuanzhi, are represented by the Washington-based law firm Ward & Ward. The case was filed in June in U.S. District Court in Maryland against Cisco and a number of its executives, lawyer Dan Ward wrote on the firm’s website. Financial support is being provided by the Laogai Research Foundation, a D.C.-based advocacy group focusing on forced labor and broader human rights issues in China. 

All three writers have endured persecution for expressing their views online, and CPJ has reported on their cases over the years:

  • Du Daobin was arrested in 2003 and given a suspended prison sentence for inciting subversion of state power through his writings the following year. Authorities re-arrested him in 2008, just days before that term was due to expire, apparently as part of the crackdown that preceded the Beijing Olympics. He was released on December 8, 2010, according to the Hong Kong-based group Chinese Human Rights Defenders.
  • Liu Xianbin was detained in June 2010 and sentenced in March to 10 years on charges of inciting subversion, again for online articles.
  • The Independent Chinese PEN Center said Zhou Yuanzhi was also detained for inciting subversion in 2008. CPJ could not independently confirm that at the time, and Zhou was subsequently released without charge, according to PEN. He is currently under home surveillance, according to The Sydney Morning Herald.

Their lawyers will try to prove that Cisco is implicated in this persecution. Ward wrote that internal documents detail the company’s development and implementation of the Golden Shield censorship system for the Chinese Communist Party. Besides blocking content, the system provides “the means to identify and locate Internet users instantaneously,” Ward alleges. He continues:

There is evidence that Cisco created an “Advanced Service Team” that was dedicated to training officials of the Chinese Communist Party to use Cisco products to these ends.

Further documents, according to Ward, show that “Cisco specifically marketed their products with the intent and knowledge they would be used to persecute free-thinkers, political activists, and other targets of oppression across China.”

In response to a request for comment on the case, John Earnhardt, Cisco’s public relations and social media director, referred CPJ to a June blog entry by Mark Chandler, Cisco’s senior vice president, general counsel and secretary, that also alludes to another recent lawsuit. (Three members of the religious organization Falun Gong, which is banned in China, filed suit against Cisco in U.S. District Court in San Jose, Calif., in May, alleging the company’s technology was used to track group members, according to The New York Times.) “The lawsuits are inaccurate and entirely without foundation,” Chandler wrote. He continued:  

We have never customized our equipment to help the Chinese government–or any government–censor content, track Internet use by individuals or intercept Internet communications.

Chandler also writes that “we fundamentally believe in and adhere to global standards” and that “our sales activities are in strict compliance with U.S. export rules and regulations, which are informed and guided by human rights principles.”

The litigation could have implications for other companies operating in China, according to Cindy Cohn, legal director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital advocacy rights group based in San Francisco. “There’s an opportunity for these cases to set legal precedent around a company’s responsibilities when selling surveillance technology, but just as importantly these cases could inspire changes in law, practice, and policy that will affect American export practices,” she told CPJ by email.

U.S.-based corporations have faced criticism for cooperating with the Chinese government in the past:

  • Yahoo’s Hong Kong subsidiary provided Chinese authorities with the personal email account of freelance journalist Shi Tao, leading to his arrest and 10-year imprisonment in 2005 for emailing purportedly classified information overseas. The U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs later rebuked Yahoo executives for wrongly testifying that the company did not know the Chinese government’s reason in seeking the information. Yahoo later settled a lawsuit filed in the United States by the family of Shi Tao.
  • Press freedom advocates criticized Microsoft in 2006 for obeying the Chinese information authorities’ command to remove a blog on its hosting platform MSN Spaces, which had published censored information.
  • Google’s China-based search engine complied with local censorship laws from 2006 until 2010, when it re-routed users within China to its unrestricted Hong Kong site. 

That criticism has led to some positive results. In 2008, Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft joined with human rights organizations including CPJ, academics, and investors to form the Global Network Initiative, adopting principles to protect online privacy and free expression. So far, however, other companies have not followed their example. Yet in China, information authorities increasingly put pressure on software and network providers to censor and monitor their customers as a condition of operation. The threat of legal action may encourage other businesses to examine any potential negative impact of their activities in China.

“It’s no longer acceptable for companies to plead ignorance about how technology they sell is used,” said Cohn of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “It’s incumbent upon experts in the field to create standards to guide companies in making ethical business practices, so that companies like Cisco can’t delude themselves or their investors about the blood-stained profits they derived from their business deals with China or other authoritarian governments.”

Dan Ward reported that security officials interrogated Du Daobin over his role in bringing the lawsuit earlier this month. The news is a reminder that while international companies grapple with the rights and wrongs of operating in China, the end users remain dangerously vulnerable. CPJ documented at least 34 journalists in Chinese prisons when it conducted its annual census in 2010, with over half writing online. Detentions continued during a harsh crackdown this year. If corporations are to avoid complicity in these repressive measures, their re-examination of best practices cannot happen soon enough.