On Monday, the Human Rights Law Foundation brought a lawsuit on behalf of Falun Gong against Cisco executives for providing Chinese authorities with networking equipment and technical assistance to set up the online "censorship and surveillance network”, named ‘Golden Shield’ (aka the Great Firewall of China).
This has enabled the authorities to find and identify people who seek access to blocked sites. Falun Gong members have been detained, tortured and even killed because of the network, the lawsuit alleges.
“Cisco's specific intent to meet the requirements of the Chinese Communist Party's purpose to identify, track and thereby abuse and eliminate Falun Gong practitioners [. . .] was expressed in marketing presentations," the court papers read.
The lawsuit alleges Cisco established a subsidiary, China Network Technology Corporation, in Beijing in 1998 to work with the government.
The 52-page suit names senior Cisco executives, including chief executive John Chambers.
Falun Gong is a spiritual movement banned in China, where its members are persecuted and arrested.
Cisco, which is based in San Diego (California), “vigorously” rejected the accusations. “We not customise our products in any way that would facilitate censorship or repression,” the company said. Instead, it "builds equipment to global standards which facilitate free exchange of information”.
However, Cisco’s statement failed to explain how it cooperates with China and what information it shares or allows Chinese authorities to obtain.
In recent years, search engines have been forced to help the authorities set up a system of censorship in order to operate in the country. Cisco has been criticised for accepting these conditions in order to remain in the hugely rich Chinese market.
Hundreds of thousands of mainland internet users are being denied access to many foreign websites because of the widespread disruption of a popular internet tool used to bypass the ''Great Firewall''.
China has 450 million internet users, the largest single group in the world. Fearing the free exchange of ideas via internet, Chinese authorities have heavily invested in a vast censorship and surveillance network.
Its great firewall blocks thousands of websites, including those connected to Falun Gong or the Dalai Lama. Sensitive issues like dissident Nobel Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, Tibet and more recently the Arab Spring are also included in its lists of banned topics.