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Cisco's Falun Gong Fiasco Isn't Going Away

Activists say Cisco is complicit in China's human rights abuses.

Image: Creative Commons/Flickr

On April 10, the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed an amicus brief urging the Federal District Court of the Northern District of California to go ahead in hearing Doe v. Cisco Systems, a case that deals with Cisco's role in supporting China's crackdown on the Falun Gong religious minority. The case has been in limbo for a few years, and EFF and others are hoping to spark some momentum in the courts. 

The Falun Gong, which translates to "Dharma Wheel Practice," was founded in 1992 by Li Hongzhi. It's a fusion of meditation, moral philosophy, and the martial arts-influenced "moving meditation" practice Qigong. By 1999, Falun Gong was said to have up to 90 million practitioners spread across China. After organizing the Tianjin and Zhongnanhai protests, in response to state media reports critical of the group, China began cracking down on the Falun Gong. 

"China's record of human rights abuses against the Falun Gong is notorious, including detention, torture, forced conversions, and even deaths," wrote EFF's Cindy Cohn in an announcement of the amicus brief. "These violations have been well-documented by the U.N., the U.S. State Department, and many others around the world, including documentation of China's use of sophisticated surveillance technologies to facilitate this repression."

Surveillance technologies designed by Cisco Systems and sold to the Chinese government. 

"The central claim in the case is that Cisco purposefully customized its general purpose router technology to allow the Chinese government to identify, track, and detain Falun Gong members," added Cohn. More from the brief: 

Plaintiffs offer specific, nonconclusory factual allegations that, if proven, would demonstrate direct, purposeful actions taken by Cisco to facilitate  the human rights abuses suffered by Plaintiffs, including: 1) specific technical customization of their products to help the Chinese authorities locate and target Falun Gong practitioners for human rights abuses including detention, torture and forced religious conversion; 2) sales, marketing and support  of their products toward that end; and 3) knowledge that the Chinese authorities planned to and actually are in fact using their products to facilitate gross human rights abuses. Taken together, these  allegations take Cisco’s actions far beyond the culpability of a standard sale of general-purpose  technologies or services and state a claim for facilitation of human rights abuses sufficient to  survive to discovery.

The plaintiff's complaint alleges "specific and articulable facts that supporting the conclusion that Cisco created Falun Gong-specific targeting software and technologies for use by the Chinese authorities."

These alleged tools include: a library that cataloged Falun Gong internet activity; centralized log/alert databases that allow real-time monitoring of Falun Gong traffic; integration of these databases with China's surveillance system used for "general law enforcement purposes"; systems for storing data profiles on Falun Gong members for use during interrogation and "forced conversion" (torture) from Falun Gong religious belief; and advanced video analyzers for recognizing over 90 percent of Falun Gong pictorial information, among other systems. 

EFF was careful to emphasize that they don't want this case to create legal blowback against technology companies selling products internationally, especially considering the district court they're urging to take up the case serves Northern California. 

Kudos to the group for handling this thorny issue with kids gloves, but the pursuit of profit should not trump human decency. If tech companies don't have the innate ethical capabilities to understand this principle, then it seems that they should be taught the hard way. And if Cisco comes out of this clean, then other tech companies might be able to carry out their own ethically questionable business practices.