The Tale of Cisco: Censorship Is In the Router

“There’s a famous saying, ‘The Internet considers censorship to be damage, and routes around it.’ I say, what if censorship is in the router?” — Seth Finkelstein, (from IEEE Spectrum)

At the recent hearing held by Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law on “Global Internet Freedom: Corporate Responsibility and the Rule of Law” Cisco found itself in the “hotseat” after a leaked power point presentation surfaced which showed that Cisco viewed China’s infamous censorship and surveillance efforts as business opportunities. One section specifically focuses on the Golden Shield project, which among other goals aims to “Combat ‘Falun Gong’ evil religion and other hostiles”, and the opportunities for Cisco. This is, of course, not the first time that such evidence has emerged. Cisco has long been condemned for building the Great Firewall of China, a charge that the company once again claims is false:

Allegations that Cisco has built a “great firewall” in China or elsewhere confuse the provision of the basic pipes of the Internet, which include basic security features that every network must have, with more specific technological mechanisms which may be implemented to achieve the invasive effects that have raised specific concerns.

More specifically, Mark Chandler states that “Cisco does not customize, or develop specialized or unique filtering capabilities, in order to enable different regimes to block access to information.”

Cisco’s defense focuses on denying that they provide customized or specialized equipment to China, a charge that has been made against Cisco in the past. But as Ethan Gutmann, whose book “Losing the New China” first made the charge, states Cisco’s defense misses the point:

I should tell you that I increasingly view the “original sin” argument – that is, Cisco routers censoring the Internet starting back in 1998 – as just an interesting historical footnote. It happens to be true, but it’s also a red herring: Cisco’s lawyers love to attack the “special firewall box” argument because, as you pointed out, it’s practically very hard to prove it beyond the shadow of a doubt.

While Cisco claims, carefully, that they do not “develop specialized or unique filtering capabilities” they acknowledge that their “off the shelf” products contain “tools” that “enable site filtering”. In other words, they do not need to develop customized products for China because their tools already contain the functionality China needs to censor the Internet. And Cisco does provide training and customer support for their “off the shelf” services.

While they may not directly enter politically sensitive keywords into the Access Control Lists it is disingenuous for Cisco to claim that it has not built the the Great Firewall when they’ve done everything but actually configure their products to block the web sites of specific human rights groups.

Without a whistle blower or a smoking gun we can only speculate about any direct involvement by Cisco. However, the leaked presentation does indicate that Cisco sees repression of “hostiles” as a business opportunity — and that’s a problem.

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