Suit Accuses Cisco of Helping Design ‘Great Firewall’ of China

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It’s the accusation every company’s fluff department dreads: abetting creepy privacy-quashing tools and supporting human-rights abuses, including torture—just a few of the charges Falun Gong practitioners are leveling at networking giant Cisco Systems in a federal lawsuit filed in California last week.

The suit filed by Washington D.C.-based Human Rights Law Foundation (HRLF) on behalf of members of Falun Gong—a spiritual movement banned in China—claims Cisco helped design and sustain the country’s Golden Shield Project (nicknamed the “Great Firewall of China”). The project amounts to a censorship and surveillance net used to regulate Internet use and block content, and in Cisco’s case, says the lawsuit, to allegedly identify, track and target Falun Gong members and other dissident groups.

(More on TIME.com: China Denies Google Claims of Beijing Gmail Frame-Up)

Cisco for its part denies everything, claiming there’s “no basis” for the suit and that it intends to “vigorously” defend against the charges, adding that it doesn’t operate networks in China and didn’t custom-tailor its products to support censorship.

It’s not the first time Cisco’s been accused of as much. In 2008, the company found itself on the defensive after 2002 PowerPoint slides emerged discussing the suppression of the “evil religion” of Falun Gong and “other hostiles.” While Cisco didn’t deny the slides originated with a Cisco engineer, it said it “[disavowed] the implication that this reflects in any way Cisco’s views or objectives.”

The question posed by the lawsuit is really whether you can sell and support technology as sophisticated as Cisco’s to a government as openly repressive as China’s and not get your hands dirty. The 52-page lawsuit alleges Cisco was in fact substantially involved in customizing and supporting China’s Golden Shield Project from the get-go, and that it viewed its role in aiding China’s attempt to crack down on groups like Falun Gong as a “lucrative” business opportunity.

How damaging was Cisco’s interaction with the Chinese government? The suit claims the Golden Shield Project enabled the arrest of up to 5,000 Falun Gong members after they downloaded material about the sect from international sites. It also alleges one of the plaintiffs (a U.S. citizen) was arrested upon entering China after emailing with Falun Gong members within the country, and that another was beaten to death for repeatedly accessing a Falun Gong website.

(via Wall Street Journal)

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