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Katrina Lantos Swett Headshot

America's Tech Firms Must Not Aid Chinese Repression

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My late great father, California Congressman Tom Lantos, would often remind me with a wry smile: "Time heals all wounds and wounds all heels." I thought of this recently when an important human rights lawsuit against Cisco Systems began to make its way through the labyrinth of our legal system.

At its most basic level, Doe vs. Cisco Systems, the current suit being argued by the Human Rights Law Foundation in the San Jose Division of California's Northern District Court, seeks to hold high-tech behemoths like Cisco accountable for actions that allegedly led them to become enabling and implementing collaborators with the Chinese government in its widespread repression and persecution of Chinese citizens through the terrifying Golden Shield system.

Put simply, the Golden Shield is the most comprehensive and far reaching cyber-police system in the world. It seeks to turn the internet into a dragnet for identifying and punishing democracy activists, legal reformers, religious believers and other Chinese citizens accused of crimes of belief across the People's Republic of China.

In constructing this Orwellian system of surveillance, the Chinese government turned to foreign companies with the sophistication and expertise to help them design the Golden Shield, Cisco being one of the most prominent among them. One of the primary targets of the Chinese government's campaign of persecution has been the peaceful religious practitioners of the Falun Gong movement. Doe vs. Cisco Systems provides disturbing evidence that Cisco was neither an unwitting nor unwilling partner in constructing a system aimed at targeting this religious community.

From compelling testimony about Cisco marketing brochures that touted their technology's capability of "Douzheng Falun Gong" (roughly translated, suppression of Falun Gong) to training and customer support sessions conducted by Cisco specifically addressing techniques for using technology to identify "despicable" disseminators of Falun Gong material, the legal record suggests that Cisco clearly understood the repressive goals of the Chinese government and was eager and ready to please its client.

This was no mere case of a business providing a neutral service or product that is then abused by an offending government such as building a road or airstrip. Rather this seems to be a case of a company specifically designing technology products intended to aid in the persecution and abuse of the targeted communities and individuals.

Eight years ago last month, top officials from Cisco, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo appeared before a Joint Session of the House Foreign Affairs Committee for a hearing examining their role in the use of the internet for suppression in China. Congressman Lantos rightly excoriated these officials for having "amassed enormous wealth, enormous influence, enormous prestige, but apparently very little social responsibility" when these companies "enthusiastically volunteered for the Chinese censorship brigade."

Congressman Lantos, who as a young man personally experienced the evils of repression from both the Nazis and the Communists in his native Hungary, would have applauded the efforts of the Human Rights Law Foundation and others who are working to achieve justice and accountability for the victims of brutal Chinese repression and their willing collaborators. As for Cisco Systems, I believe he would once again say, "While technologically and financially you are giants, morally you are pygmies."

My father was not one to mince words, nor should we when the rights of our fellow human beings are at stake.