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Cisco Systems lawsuits (re China)

In 2011 two seperate lawsuits were filed in US court against Cisco Systems regarding the company's activities in China. Both sets of plaintiffs allege that Cisco helped the Chinese government build computer systems used to track and prosecute political dissidents. This tracking led to many of the plaintiffs being arrested, arbitrarily detained, tortured, and killed. In 2014, the lawsuits were dismissed. Both judges presiding over the two seperate cases cited the claims had a lack of connection with the US to proceed in court.



In mid-2011 two separate lawsuits were filed in US federal court against Cisco Systems and its top executives regarding the company's activities in China. Human Rights Foundation filed a lawsuit on 19 May 2011 in California on behalf of 11 members of the Chinese Falun Gong movement against Cisco and certain of its executives, including CEO John Chambers. The second lawsuit was filed on 6 June 2011 in Maryland on behalf of three jailed Chinese writers. Both sets of plaintiffs allege that Cisco helped the Chinese Government build computer systems used to track and prosecute dissidents.

The lawsuits allege Cisco designed and maintains a censorship network known as the Golden Shield Project, with the understanding that Golden Shield would be used by the Chinese authorities to monitor and access private internet communications, identify anonymous blog authors and to block online publications critical of the Chinese Communist Party. The Falun Gong plaintiffs allege that, by using Cisco's network, the Chinese authorities tracked the online activities of the Falun Gong movement. They allege that some of the Falun Gong members were arrested, arbitrarily detained, tortured and killed, while others disappeared.

The second lawsuit alleges that the defendants' role in creating the Golden Shield enabled the Chinese Government to identify and jail each of the plaintiffs. The writers had each published articles on the internet supporting democracy and human rights and critical of the Chinese Communist Party. Each writer alleges that he was subsequently detained and tortured by the Chinese authorities. They brought the lawsuit under the Alien Tort Statute.

Cisco denies all accusations, claiming it sells the same equipment in China that it sells in other countries around the world.

In February 2014, the judge in the lawsuit filed on behalf of the three jailed Chinese writers dismissed the case ruling that the court lacked jurisdiction. He also found Cisco was not at fault for abuses carried out using the censorship network.

In September 2014, a US federal court dismissed the lawsuit against Cisco over allegations of abetting torture of Falun Gong practitioners in China ruling that the allegations did not have sufficient US ties for a US court to hear the claims under the Alien Tort Claims Act.

In January 2016, NGOs filed an amicus brief that urges a US court of appeals to reinstate the Falun Gong practitioners lawsuit against Cisco.  In April 2017, the plaintiffs in this case asked the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to revive the allegations.

- "Lawsuit Accuses Cisco of Complicity in Oppression Abroad", Jennifer Wadsworth, San Jose Inside (USA), 24 May 2017
- "Cisco Won't Face Claim it Abetted Torture in China", Elizabeth Warmerdam, Courthouse News Service (USA), 11 Sep 2014
- "Cisco Slapped With New Suit", Richard Finney, Parameswaran Ponnudurai, Radio Free Asia, 7 Jun 2011
- "Cisco rejects Falun Gong 'China online spying' lawsuit", BBC, 24 May 2011
- "Falun Gong members sue Cisco for helping China build its national firewall, called the Golden Shield", Associated Press, 23 May 2011

- [PDF] Doe et al. v. CISCO Systems, et al. - Order granting motion to dismiss, US District Court of Northern District of California. 5 Sep 2014
- [PDF] Du Daobin, Zhou Yuanzhi, Liu Xianbin, and Does 1-10 v. CISCO Systems, Inc., Thomas Lam, Owen Chan, Rick Justice, John T. Chambers - Complaint, 6 Jun 2011
- Doe et al. v. CISCO Systems, John Chambers, Thomas Lam, Owen Chan, and DOES 1-100 - Class Action Complaint, 19 May 2011

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24 May 2017

Plaintiffs in Cisco lawsuit ask Court to revive US case over alleged surveillance of Falun Gong members in China

Author: Jennifer Wadsworth, San Jose Inside (USA)

"Lawsuit Accuses Cisco of Complicity in Oppression Abroad", 24 May 2017

...[P]laintiffs in a class-action claim [are] accusing Cisco of designing software, hardware and training to help China’s ruling party persecute Falun Gong adherents...The lawsuit hopes to addres an evolving legal question: Can American corporations be held liable if foreign authorities use their product for repression? The federal district court in San Jose dismissed the case in 2014, saying Falun Gong victims...failed to prove that Cisco knew its product would enable oppression. But [in April 2017], the plaintiffs asked the...Court of Appeals to revive the allegations....Cisco has assiduously denied the allegations...Since a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, however, lower courts have differed over how to apply the majority’s ambiguous holding that the Alien Tort Statute may only apply to actions abroad if the allegations “touch and concern” American territories. [The Falun Gong members' counsel] argued that the claims against Cisco meet that “touch and concern” standard...

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13 January 2016

EFF says Cisco shouldn't get off the hook for torture in China

Author: Stephen Lawson, IDG News Service

Cisco Systems built a security system for the Chinese government knowing it would be used to track and persecute members of the Falun Gong religious minority, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation technology rights group. Falun Gong practitioners alleged the same thing in a lawsuit that a federal judge in Northern California dismissed in 2014. That case is being appealed, and on Monday the EFF, Privacy International and free-speech group Article 19 filed a brief that supports the appeal. The case highlights the risks technology companies take by selling software and hardware to customers around the world. Some of those customers may use the technology in ways that raise objections in other countries, creating legal problems or just tarnishing a vendor's reputation...“We have always maintained that there is no basis for the allegations against Cisco, and there is no merit to the case," Cisco said via email. "We do not customize our products in any way that would facilitate censorship or repression.”

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12 January 2016

EFF To Court: Cisco Must Be Held Accountable For Aiding China’s Human Rights Abuses

Author: Electronic Frontier Foundation

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is urging a federal appeals court to reinstate a lawsuit seeking to hold Cisco Systems accountable for aiding in human rights abuses by building the Chinese government a system that Cisco officials knew was intended to identify—and facilitate the capture and torture of—members of the Falun Gong religious minority. In an amicus brief filed Monday with the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, EFF and the groups ARTICLE 19 and Privacy International argue that the plaintiffs sufficiently alleged that Cisco understood that the “Golden Shield” system (also known as The Great Firewall) it custom-built for China was an essential component of the government’s program of persecution against the Falun Gong—persecution that included online spying and tracking, detention, and torture.

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11 January 2016

Doe, et al. v. Cisco Systems: Brief of amici curiae Electronic Frontier Foundation, Article 19 and Privacy International in support of Plaintiffs-Appellants & reversal

Author: Sophia Cope, Electronic Frontier Foundation

This is the second Alien Tort Statute (“ATS”) case in which plaintiffs allege that the technology giant Cisco specially built surveillance, censorship, and other repressive products for the Chinese government that targeted disfavored groups — here, a religious minority called the Falun Gong, and in the other, prominent democracy activists — who were then subjected to torture and other recognized human rights abuses…In the digital age, repressive governments do not act alone to violate human rights. They have accomplices — including American technology companies like Cisco, as alleged by Plaintiffs — with the sophistication and technical know-how that those repressive governments lack. If aiding and abetting liability under the Alien Tort Statute is to mean anything, it must apply to cases like this…

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26 March 2015

Blog series on lawsuit in USA against Cisco over alleged complicity in provision of surveillance system targeting Chinese dissidents

Author: Beth Van Schaack, Stanford University, in Just Security (USA)

“China’s Golden Shield—Is Cisco Systems Complicit?” 24 Mar 2015

This is Part I of a series on a case pending in the Northern District of California against Cisco Systems involving the company’s provision of technology to help construct, operate, and maintain China’s Golden Shield, a network surveillance system that was allegedly used to target Falun Gong practitioners for persecution. Part I outlines the claims in and procedural posture of the case; Part II discusses some of the legal issues in play with reference to other cases of corporate complicity in human rights abuses under the Alien Tort Statute...[Also refers to Nestlé, Shell]

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4 December 2014

Access to justice for victims of human rights abuses needs to be strengthened

Author: Sif Thorgeirsson, Manager, Corporate Legal Accountability Project, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

‘Closing the courtroom door: where can victims of human rights abuse by business find justice?’, 1 Dec 2014

…[M]any victims of business-related human rights abuse have no access to judicial remedy in their home country…The majority of cases of abuse we see at Business & Human Rights Resource Centre occur in weak governance zones, which often do not have an independent judiciary, and sometimes lack fully functioning courts…Of the 108 legal cases the Centre has profiled,…[54%] are related to extraterritorial claims…[but t]he effect [of Kiobel] has been a near-freeze on victims seeking justice through this…avenue. At the time of…Kiobel…, there were at least 19 corporate Alien Tort cases pending in US courts.  Since then, only one new…case has been filed…While the scope for remedy from US and English courts is narrowing…there have been three cases filed in Canadian courts addressing extraterritorial business-related human rights abuse...[and]…cases…have been filed in France, Switzerland and Germany…Concerted action is needed by governments and others to reverse the trend toward closing…avenues to justice…[Also refers to Occidental Petroleum, Cisco Systems, Drummond, Chiquita, Rio Tinto,  Daimler, ExxonMobil, Nestle, CACI, L-3 Titan, Nevsun, Hudbay Minerals and Tahoe Resources]

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25 November 2014

Standard behind US Court dismissal of Alien Tort case against Occidental & AirScan “sufficiently vague for corporations to hide behind”, says journalist

Author: Siddhartha Mahanta, Foreign Policy (USA)

"Suing companies for atrocities has never been harder. Thanks, Supreme Court!", 18 Nov 2014 [Subscription required]

On Nov. 12 [2014], the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals…ruled…in Mujica v. AirScan that the families of the victims of a…1998, cluster bomb attack on…Santo Domingo, Colombia, could not make claims against two American companies...Occidental Petroleum and AirScan...allegedly complicit in the attack...The Colombian helicopters that bombed Santo Domingo did so to protect the Caño-Limón pipeline, owned by Occidental, according to the plaintiffs. Occidental allegedly provided financial support to the Colombian military, [and gave] it office space to plan the…raid, the plaintiffs said…[I]n Kiobel vs. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co...Chief Justice John Roberts...[said]..."even where the claims touch and concern the territory of the United States...they must do so with sufficient force to displace the presumption against extraterritorial application."...Now, that "touch and concern" standard has returned...[Judge] Bybee wrote that the [Alien Tort Statute] didn't apply [in this case] because the…claims…failed to "touch and concern" the [US] with sufficient force...Relying on a standard as ill-defined as touch and concern, it seems, creates language sufficiently vague for corporations to hide behind. [Also refers to Exxon Mobil, Cisco, Shell]

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11 September 2014

Cisco Won't Face Claim it Abetted Torture in China

Author: Elizabeth Warmerdam, Courthouse News Service (USA)

A group of Chinese and U.S. citizens cannot continue with their lawsuit alleging that Cisco Systems abetted the torture of Falun Gong practitioners in China by collaborating with the government on a customized security system, a federal judge ruled…Members of the religion filed suit against Cisco, claiming that the company helped the Chinese government to develop and maintain "Golden Shield"…[a] system…allegedly used to eavesdrop and intercept the communications of Falun Gong believers…apprehend and torture members because of their religious beliefs, and ultimately suppress Falun Gong believers through human rights abuses against them…The Falun Gong followers also asserted that the U.S. District Court had federal jurisdiction…pursuant to the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) and Torture Victims Protection Act. However, U.S. District Court Judge Edward Davila found that…[a] stronger showing is needed that tortious acts were planned or executed in the United States in order to overcome the presumption against extraterritoriality…

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11 April 2014

Cisco is mute on accusations of aiding Chinese state snooping

Author: Dave Neal, Inquirer (UK)

Networking equipment vendor [Cisco Systems] has been accused of helping the Chinese authorities snoop on, discriminate against and violently suppress the religious group Falun Gong…The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)…has filed a request to submit an amicus brief in a US District Court in California…It asks the court to let the case "Doe vs Cisco Systems" go ahead...“The central claim…is that Cisco purposefully customised its general purpose router technology to allow the Chinese government to identify, track, and detain Falun Gong members."…The EFF alleges that Cisco was asked to customise its kit so that the Chinese authorities could pick up Falun Gong 'signatures' and enable the logging and monitoring of traffic patterns…[It]…alleges that Cisco knew about this customisation, knew that it would be used to repress the Falun Gong, and still marketed and supported the technologies "towards that purpose"…Cisco has declined…to comment on the views of the EFF and its lawsuit.

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1 March 2014

Cisco cleared in rights case, as tech sector watches [USA/China]

Author: AFP

A US court has cleared Cisco Systems over liability for human rights abuses in China…The Maryland judge dismissed the case, saying Cisco -- one of the biggest makers of computer networking equipment -- was not at fault for abuses carried out by Beijing using the "Golden Shield" censorship and surveillance project to find, arrest and torture political opponents…Judge Peter Messitte, in a February 24 opinion, sidestepped some of the key legal questions in ruling that the court lacked jurisdiction over the US tech giant's activities, but added that he "harbors doubt that corporations are immune" from the Alien Tort law…Activists hoping to use the US courts to hold corporations accountable for complicity in rights abuses expressed disappointment over the decision…Cisco welcomed the court decision…While the US courts have been unreceptive to lawsuits, multinational companies are facing pressure on other fronts to step up efforts on human rights…[Refers to DaimlerChrysler (now Daimler), Facebook, Google, Shell, Yahoo]

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