2 US lawsuits against Cisco on China rights abuses

There are two lawsuits in the pipleline against Cisco for the technology it sold to the Chinese government, that was then used in the imprisonment and torture of human rights activists and political dissidents.

The first lawsuit: in May 2011, the Human Rights Law Foundation filed suit in the Federal District Court in San Jose, CA. It accuses Cisco of designing products that help the Chinese government persecute Falun Gong members. In September, it amends the complaint, saying it has new evidence that Cisco customized its products specifically to enable the government to persecute Falun Gong members, some of whom have been tortured & killed by the Chinese authorities. This evidence may include a PowerPoint presentation from Cisco that describes a specific line of products “as the only product on the market capable of recognizing over 90% of Falun Gong pictures.”

The second lawsuit: in June 2011, three Chinese dissidents sued Cisco in the U.S. District Court in Maryland, saying that it was complicit in the arrests and detentions of political writers Du Daobin, Zhou Yuanzhi and Liu Xianbin. They claim that the company “willingly and knowingly provided Chinese officials with technology and training to access private Internet communications, identify anonymous web log authors, prevent the broadcast and dissemination of peaceful speech, and otherwise aid and abet in the violation of…fundamental human rights.”

Both lawsuits hinge on the Alien Tort Claims Act, which allows U.S. courts to uphold international law. If the company is found to be aiding and abetting human rights abuses, it could be held liable under the ATCA. One outstanding question is whether the plaintiffs will have to show that Cisco ‘knew’ its products were being used to abuse human rights, or that it had the ‘purpose’ of abusing human rights by exporting its products abroad.

Previous plaintiffs have gotten traction with ATCA claims regarding US tech companies’ involvement in foreign human rights abuses.

In 2009, a lawsuit against five large tech companies, including IBM, was allowed to continue by a judge. The complaint asks for monetary damages, claiming that the tech companies aided South Africa in perpetrating racial segregation and abuses in its apartheid system.

In 2007, Yahoo was sued for its involvement with the Chinese authorities’ persecution of political dissidents. It also came under Congressional scrutiny for releasing information from the email account of a journalist, Shi Tao, to the authorities in China, who subsequently arrested her and sentenced her to 10 years imprisonment. Yahoo settled the case.