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19 May 2011

Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

Cisco Systems lawsuits (re China)


Date lawsuit was filed
19 May 2011
Human Rights Defender
Location of Filing: United States of America
Location of Incident: China
Type of Litigation: Transnational


Cisco Systems United States of America Technology, telecom & electronics


In 2011 two separate 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 separate 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.