An American maker of Internet routing gear is in deep public relations trouble. It has been accused of customizing its technology to help Communist China track members of a religious dissident group calling itself “Falun Gong.” It has resulted in a lawsuit being filed last month in federal court in California.
The lawsuit alleges that the American Internet routing company marketed its equipment by developing special training manuals to teach the Chinese government how to locate dissidents. The lawsuit also alleges that those training manuals used inflammatory language borrowed from the era of the Maoist Revolution. Finally, it contends that the company helped design the “Golden Shield” firewall that has actually been used to censor political and religious speech in China and to track opponents of the Chinese government.
The lawsuit is of great interest to me because the American Internet company named as a defendant in the lawsuit is none other than Cisco Systems. In fact, the suit also individually names Cisco President John Chambers. Readers of this column are probably familiar with Chambers because he has also been named in my last three columns. Those columns have all explored the firing of American political and religious dissident Frank Turek. That firing occurred after Turek’s religious and political speech was tracked by a manager at Cisco who promptly had him excluded from the workplace under the Cisco policy of inclusion.
Evidence of the company’s activities in China first became public in 2004, in the book "Losing the New China: A Story of American Commerce, Desire and Betrayal," by Ethan Gutmann. Since then, Cisco has disassociated itself from the marketing materials, stating that they were the work of a low-level employee. This argument is similar to the argument being made in conjunction with the Turek firing. In both cases, Cisco insists that individuals within the company are acting in a manner inconsistent with its deep commitment to tolerance of political and religious dissent.
The Falun Gong suit claims that additional Cisco marketing presentations prove that it promoted its technology to Communist China as being specifically capable of taking aim at dissident groups. The New York Times is reporting that, in one marketing slide, the goals of the Golden Shield are described as follows: To “douzheng evil Falun Gong cult and other hostile elements.” Douzheng is a Chinese term used specifically to describe the persecution of undesirable political and/or religious groups. It was widely used by the Communist Party in the Cultural Revolution led by Mao.
So the federal lawsuit essentially argues that Cisco developed and marketed the Golden Shield as a system that could a) censor Internet traffic flowing into China, and b) identify and monitor opponents of the Communist Chinese government. The suit also alleges that Falun Gong members were tracked by the Golden Shield and then apprehended.
What happened next isn’t exactly the same as what happened to Frank Turek – who was simply fired. In contrast, members of the Falun Gong were arrested and tortured with one member being beaten to death. As of this writing, another plaintiff who was arrested has since vanished and is presumed to be dead.
The lawsuit is a serious one because it states that other Cisco documents will show that it taught the Chinese Ministry of Public Security how to pursue dissidents effectively. This lawsuit was filed the very week that the Cisco Senior Director of Inclusion and Diversity Marilyn Nagel was denying that a managerial decision to monitor and track the religious beliefs of Frank Turek had nothing to do with a broader cultural problem at Cisco.
It is interesting to note that Falun Gong is also a religious organization, which has come out publicly against gay marriage. But there is no allegation that Cisco wanted to see members of Falun Gong tortured because of their opposition to gay marriage. (Sarcasm equal on). Cisco is above that sort of thing. The accusation is merely that Cisco helped throw these dissidents to the wolves in order to make a quick buck. This has nothing to do with traditional morality. (Sarcasm equal off).
The Falun Gong lawsuit is based on the Alien Torts Statute, which permits foreign nationals to bring lawsuits in United States federal court. Falun Gong also brought charges under the Torture Victim Protection Act and under California statutory law. The lawsuit has been filed, in part, on behalf of eight unidentified Chinese citizens, including those who were tortured and killed or are missing. Like the opponents of same-sex marriage employed at Cisco their names are being withheld to protect them from retaliation.
Many libertarian readers of my column have defended Cisco’s “right” to fire a man based on his privately held religious beliefs discovered by investigating him on the internet. But that is typical of libertarians who only ask whether something is free and not whether it is right.
For now, we will all have to sit back and wait to see whether the evidence shows that Cisco did indeed teach the Communist Chinese how to effectively pursue political dissidents. But it is safe to assume that Cisco management has learned a thing or two from the Communist Chinese. The training manual can be purchased here.